Study: female athletes don’t sell products

Dara Torres in her Got Milk? campaign ad.

Dara Torres in her Got Milk? campaign ad.

Watching the Olympics is always a handy way to demonstrate the vast chasm between the way we treat male athletes and the way we treat female athletes, particularly if you have the misfortune of watching the broadcast on NBC (may god have mercy on my IQ).


The other day, Ryan Lochte blitzed the field in the 400m individual medley; the race was followed immediately - and, I can only assume, coincidentally - by two ads featuring Lochte.

Stephanie Rice in her Sun Rice advertising campaign.

Stephanie Rice in her Sun Rice advertising campaign.



Today, I watched one of the women’s basketball preliminaries, Australia vs France. It was a terrific game - thanks largely to Belinda Snell’s outrageous last-minute shot that nearly saved the game for Australia. And the ads featured... well, the usual mix of Glade Plug-Ins and breakfast cereals. Because, you know, female athletes don’t sell things.


No, that’s the actual truth, according to researchers at The University of Delaware. They found, in a study published in the Journal of Brand Strategy, found that advertisers - used to using women solely as sex objects - hit a wall when it came to marketing female athletes:


Responding to an ad featuring twelve-time US Olympic medalist Dara Torres (pictured above) interviewees said,  “this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family,” and “featuring Dara Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might be more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness at age 40.”


Have a look at the ad itself above. I personally don’t see Torres’ Got Milk? ad as being particularly geared towards sexiness or “physical attractiveness”, incidentally. It makes me want to go punch some weights. Torres looks strong and fit, and talks about her chosen sport; it’s not all that different to similar ads featuring male athletes (here are two examples featuring Corey Hill and David Beckham, which are nearly identical to Torres’).


Let’s put aside the deeply depressing fact that consumers have been so brainwashed by advertising that they need to see a champion athlete as a homemaker in order to be able to relate to her.


Perhaps the broader problem is that we live in a world with such a narrow view of female attractiveness that female athletes are too “different” to be given an endorsement shot. Male athletes, for the most part, fit the general ideal of manhood. Female athletes look “masculine”, “too muscly”, “weird”.


Take the criticism of British weightlifter Zoe Smith, who just broke the British weightlifting record in the women’s 58kg event.  A BBC 3 documentary, Girl Power: Going For Gold, highlighted the Olympic journey of Smith and fellow athletes Hannah Powell and Helen Jewell. Viewer chatter on Twitter included plenty of criticism from men (and some women) of the athletes’ bodies.


Smith’s response, on her blog, was scintillating: “We don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. [...] Why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.”


Evidently the advertising and endorsement industry is populated by similar men.


As the coverage of the University of Delaware study notes, “the best opportunity for substantial endorsement contracts for female athletes will be determined over the next few weeks”; female athletes who do well at the Olympics might be lucky to pick up a few endorsement crumbs that are left over from the smorgasbord foisted upon their male equivalents.


Personally, I would buy anything Lauren Jackson sold me. I would splash cash on whatever Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins became the face of. I did buy SunRice when Stephanie Rice was flogging it (that was in the pre-“suck on that, faggots” days).


When are marketing teams and advertisers going to give female athletes a go, and give female consumers a bit more credit?