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Dowbiggin: Sponsors scramble to rid themselves of tarnished athlete

Apparel giant Oakley was probably not looking for this kind of publicity from one of its spokesmen, double amputee Oscar Pistorius. The company trademark was on the sweatshirt Pistorius wore as South African police arrested him for the murder of his girlfriend on Thursday.

News of the arrest caused many of Pistorius's sponsors such as Nike, Oakley and British Telecom to pull TV and radio ads, take down billboards and remove his name from their charitable ventures.

These are hard times for heroes and the people who promote or sponsor them. Lance Armstrong's spectacular meltdown took many of his supporters with him. The media nightmares of Penn State (Jerry Sandusky's sexual assaults) and Notre Dame (Manti Te'o's fictional girlfriend meme) put U.S. college football in an unflattering light. All the recent cases left sponsors and charities looking like unrequited suitors who've been jilted. Nike was forced to withdraw a Pistorius ad in which he says, "I am the bullet in the chamber."

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In this media-saturated age, where values sell products, sponsors and charities fall especially hard for athletes such as Pistorius or Armstrong. Their virtuous back stories give sponsors the halo effect in addition to marketing push. Pistorius was one of the great legends of the 2012 London Olympics, seemingly running against the odds on his blade-like feet. His sponsors took it from there, giving him the Lance Armstrong treatment.

"It speaks to how powerful a company like Nike, when they invest money behind an athlete, can make him or her appear iconic to the extent that they're Teflon coated," Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, told bloomberg.com.

Did Pistorius's Teflon effect cause the sponsors to miss signs? A cursory look behind the scenes should have raised flags about Pistorius. He has an erratic personal history alleging domestic violence, alcohol abuse and police episodes over women. He was a fervent gun owner and marksman, not unusual in South Africa but toxic to the sensibilities in other markets.

Sports marketer Brian Cooper says the Pistorius arrest is every marketer's nightmare. "You try to have athletes matching the values of your product," the president and CEO of S&E Marketing said. "That's how brand matching works. Then all of a sudden Uncle Billy comes out of the woods and you're in trouble.

"Pistorius was a great human-interest story of a man overcoming the odds to compete as able bodied. But you have to do due diligence. We went through this with our client Scotiabank when they decided to use Jarome Iginla as a spokesman. We spoke to everyone from his coaches to the stick boy to confirm that his values matched those of the sponsor. He does, and it's been a great campaign."

How should Pistorius's sponsors react? "Pull everything from the shelves," Cooper said, "and emphasize that the client is not the product."

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