It is alleged that modern athletes have gone to seed. Spoiled, undisciplined, long-haired, soft-nosed, registered to vote, they are not nearly so dependable as their forebears, a sturdy lot who contented themselves by sitting about hotel lobbies expectorating accurately toward potted palms. But then, who can you look up to anymore? Our other traditional all-American heroes have even more flies on them. Businessmen are held in low repute. Judges are viewed as wise only when examining over-the-counter stock possibilities. Our best politicians have gone back a far pace; they are today not nearly so adept at graft as our military men. Movie stars are no longer pretty, but, in fact, are valued for average looks. Once there were all those famous legs, breasts, biceps and cleft chins. Now we have only Paul Newman's eyes—and it has been years since he was divorced. By default, and since they no longer throw games, athletes are about the only people left we can trust.
So it is that in selling, which, after all, is what trusting is mostly about, athletes have ascended to a position of eminence. There is hardly a street corner left in the land that does not contain a hamburger establishment named after a sports star. In the old days athletes used to tend bar in the off season; now no saloon has a chance unless some jock has been given a piece of the action to front for it. Politicians cherish the athlete's endorsement. John Lindsay stayed so close to the Mets down the stretch that he came to resemble a banner. The military is forever bundling groups of pros off to the Pacific, so the peace movement is countering with Tom Seaver, whether he likes it or not. Athletes are placed on boards of directors and on municipal commissions. Above all, they are on display across the land pushing products of every design and type.
"The athlete provides recognition," says Steve Arnold, one of the founders of Pro Sports, Inc., a company that represents athletes in their sundry negotiations. "More than that, he also supplies the image. For most people the athlete is still the all-American boy. Actors, on the other hand, are actors, and there is the suspicion that they are always acting. That's the last thing you want when you hire somebody to endorse your product. The athlete provides sincerity."
Employing athletes as barkers is nothing new. The memory rolls with visions of scores of oldtimers reading haltingly, struggling with a script as they did with their written contracts, holding up some overwhelmed product in a meaty paw and, with misplaced inflection and all the wrong pauses, saying things like: "It tastes good, and it's good for you, too." Mercifully, there is more sophistication to the art now, if only because a run-of-the-mill 30-second spot will cost something like $1,000 a second and nobody in advertising is going to let a clod athlete louse up that kind of money as if it were a simple double-play ball. Athletes who make commercials now find themselves repeating endless takes for a whole day or two just to get their few seconds on camera right. But then, as Joe Kuharich might say, it is rare but not unusual for an athlete to make up to $25,000 for suffering such indignities.
There are still commercials shown that are agonizingly painful to witness, but for the most part athletes have reached a status where they are at least more capable than the other largest group of amateur advertisers—those unfortunate droves of housewives who go on at length about various detergents. Though athletes have made discomfiting appearances in commercials recently, the error often must be scored against the agency for inappropriate casting. When Y. A. Tittle was at his peak with the Giants, a woman representative of an ad agency actually called up an agent and asked if Tittle would appear in a hair tonic commercial. The agent tactfully suggested a substitute player with hair. Juan Marichal was signed to make some San Francisco radio spots for Saxon apple juice—"It will make you feel strong." Bay Area listeners were regularly treated to hearing Marichal, in his Spanish accent, declare what surely sounded like: "Sex and apple juice will make you feel strong."
The man who has employed athletes most effectively is George Lois, the 37-year-old president of Lois Holland Callaway Inc., a hot young New York advertising firm that has recently branched out into other areas—notably with Mantle Men & Namath Girls, Inc., which in a few months has become one of the largest employment agencies in New York. Brilliant and aggressive, even pugilistic, Lois had a basketball-baseball scholarship to Syracuse, but instead took a half scholarship for basketball at Pratt Institute in New York. He remains a complete sports nut, which is perhaps the prime reason why athletes fare so much better in his commercials. "Most of them know that it's good for them and that it will be hard for them to make fools of themselves," Lois says, "but they also know I'm a fan and I don't want to embarrass them."
"George Lois is a genius," says an account supervisor at another large agency, "but he has also got to be the only president of any company in this country who must spend $1,000 a year on adhesive tape. George takes the last part of every day in his office taping his ankles so he can go straight from there to play basketball or softball or volleyball or whatever else fool thing he is playing." While Lois was still working on the Volkswagen account at Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc., he once became annoyed during a meeting with VW officials in Germany. He fell the Germans were not exhibiting enough appreciation of his references to baseball. Lois, who is a big-boned, angular man, suddenly stood up, threw back his chair, dashed toward the end of the room and crashed artfully to the rug at full speed. The astonished Germans stared as the mad American returned to his chair. "Now that," Lois said, "is what I mean when I talk about sliding into second base."
Lois has formulated a premise for deciding when to utilize an athlete for a commercial. "There are only certain circumstances when an athlete is applicable," he says. "The ad must transcend the fact that you are using an athlete. You just don't say, hey, let's get a ballplayer for this. There must be a legitimate reason. You use an athlete only when it is apt to do so or, on the other side of the coin, in never-never land, when it is so ridiculous to use an athlete that it's a good bit for everybody. That's what we did for Braniff when we used Sonny Liston listening to Andy Warhol talk about painting and Salvador Dali discussing baseball with Whitey Ford.
"The horrible thing is to catch the athlete between these extremes, when he is neither being himself nor putting the world on. No commercial in recent years, for instance, was more pathetic and artificial than the Brylcreem one with Joe DiMaggio. There was Joe, all alone in that corny locker room talking with deadly seriousness about this hair thing, and you cringed with embarrassment. All you thought of was: How can poor Joe be that bad off? He must really need the money to do that."
By contrast, for Edwards & Hanly, a New York brokerage house, Lois used two athletes who came right out and started talking directly about their sensitive pasts. One commercial had Mickey Mantle, with a stupid grin, face into the camera and declare: "When I first came up to the big leagues, I was a grinnin', shuffling head-duckin' country boy. Well, I'm still a country boy, but I know a man down at Edwards & Hanly. I'm learnin'. I'm learnin'."