You Might Say New Ad Star Is Soft-Pedaling for Taco Bell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has reigned for years as a sports hero in Europe, has twice won bicycling's most prestigious race and has graced the cover of Sport Illustrated as last year's "Sportsman of the Year."

But drop Greg LeMond's name in this country and you might see a few blank stares.

Over the next few weeks, Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp. is hoping that the superstar of bicycle racing will become as familiar to mainstream America as Bo Jackson running in Nike sneakers or Arnold Palmer filling his lawn tractor with Pennzoil.

LeMond is the feature of Taco Bell's largest summertime promotion effort ever, a $12-million campaign that hopes to cash in on the youthful, healthy image and growing popularity of bicycling.

The promotion by the Mexican-style chain of fast-food restaurants is the latest evidence that two-wheeling has come of age on Madison Avenue. Major companies are using a backdrop of bicycling in broadcast and print ad campaigns.

Miller Brewing Co. is finishing up a series of television advertisements for the "Tour de Lite," in which such offbeat celebrities as the rap group Run DMC and the Jamaican bobsledding team compete in a fictitious bike race from Los Angeles to New York.

The reason for the sudden interest in cycling is that the growing sport has all the ingredients that marketers like.

"It's young, fast, sexy and healthy," said Tim Blumenthal, an editor for Bicycling magazine in Emmaus, Pa. "That's exactly the kind of association a beer company or taco maker is looking for."

For Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Pepsico, a bicycle-themed campaign was looked upon as an appealing way to capture its primary target audience, 18- to 35-year-old men and women. "After music, participating in sports is their most favorite thing to do," said Tim Ryan, the restaurant chain's senior vice president of marketing.

LeMond was signed for the "tacos to go" campaign late last year after winning his second Tour de France, bicycling's most famous race. His later being named Sports Illustrated's top sportsman of 1989 reassured Taco Bell executives that the Nevada native would be readily known as a sports celebrity.

Just to be sure, his name and the "sportsman" designation are flashed in the 30-second commercial.

"Once he gets that helmet on, he's a little hard to recognize," explained Neal Sellman, creative director for the ad agency of Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco, which produced the spot.

Due to start airing Monday, the commercial will show LeMond making a "Run to the Border" for six-pack boxes of tacos. He pedals through a Taco Bell drive-through window and heads back with such fury that a woman grabs for her hat and another clutches her skirt as the bicycle whooshes by. He is hailed by party-goers on his return.

Ryan said the advertisement will reach the average Los Angeles television viewer 12 times over the next month or so, with saturation advertising in other cities as well. In addition, Taco Bell stores will capitalize on the bicycle theme by selling LeMond-signature plastic water bottles for 99 cents and holding drawings for 10-speed mountain bikes.

Though the ad could make LeMond a nationally recognized figure, the cyclist will have a ways to go before he reaches the pinnacle reserved for athletes such as Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.

Miller Brewing has been putting bicycles on the airwaves since April with a series of gag-filled ads for Lite beer. Though relying on celebrities and characters from other fields, the spots did employ amateur bicycle racers as extras.

Though the results are still being evaluated, the campaign is considered a success, said Miller spokesman Dave Fogelson.

While Taco Bell and Miller are promoting their products on bikes, the company that has been most closely associated with the sport in recent years has been pouring money into its highly regarded cycling team--rather than advertising the fact.

Southland Corp., which started sponsoring its 7-Eleven racing team a decade ago, is getting a mound of publicity through races. "What we've done is spend the money on the team" instead of on advertising that touts the company's association with cycling, said Sean Petty, Southland's sports marketing manager.

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