Sidelined : Sponsors Reconsider Magic Johnson Ads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite pledges by advertisers to stick by Earvin (Magic) Johnson, he has quietly been benched by many of them.

Nearly two months after Johnson announced that he was retiring from basketball because of his infection with the AIDS virus, only one American advertiser--Converse--has announced specific plans to feature Johnson in future product spots. The Converse ad will air during the Summer Olympic Games.

This is unchartered territory for advertisers, most of whom recognize that they will probably be criticized no matter what they do. While Johnson fans want to see their hero in ads, there are also Johnson detractors who view him as a poor role model. Advertisers won't publicly admit it, but they say they privately worry about linking themselves with someone who may turn gravely ill.

One thing is clear: Johnson will be promoting far fewer products in 1992 than in 1991. One sports marketing expert estimates that Johnson's infection with the virus could ultimately cost him more than $25 million in lost product endorsement fees.

While many of the advertisers say they plan to support Johnson's AIDS awareness efforts--and possibly create ads that speak to the issue of acquired immune deficiency syndrome--most are reluctant to specifically comment on any plans to continue using Johnson as a product spokesman.

Among those still straddling the fence: Pepsi, Nestle and Spalding. "It's a hard situation," Nestle spokeswoman Linda Gavlick said. "No matter what (we do), there are people who will be unhappy." She said Nestle is "exploring" support of AIDS education. But Nestle has not run any ads featuring Johnson since signing him on three months ago.

Two companies that used Johnson in ads in 1991--Target Stores and Kentucky Fried Chicken--say they have no plans to use him in 1992. But they insist that is unrelated to his illness.

"It's a real predicament," said Gail Dorn, a spokeswoman for Target, which just completed a holiday promotion featuring Johnson. She said Target strongly supports Johnson, but, she asked, "because of his situation, are we obliged to work with him forever?"

Johnson's promotion of "Hot 'n Spicy" chicken for KFC ended months before his illness was revealed, said Dick Detwiler, a KFC spokesman. "We are in no way abandoning Magic Johnson."

Meanwhile, Johnson has not signed on with any new companies since his announced illness.

"I don't think he has a future in advertising new products," said Lloyd Kolmer, a New York celebrity marketing expert. "Advertisers don't want to be associated with negatives. And this is a very solemn negative. He might die."

Pepsi officials met with Johnson and his agent earlier this month, but Pepsi spokeswoman Lynn Markley said nothing specific was worked out. "As a major advertiser, we need to rethink how to position Magic in a way that's right for him and right for us," she said.

But Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen, said Pepsi has already agreed to feature Johnson in future ads. While advertisers are changing the strategies of their future campaigns with Johnson, Rosen said, "the bottom line is, they all still want to use him."

Rosen also said that Campofrio, the Spanish meat-packing giant, will continue using Johnson as a spokesman in its TV spots in Spain. Since Johnson revealed his illness, Rosen said, three major--but undisclosed--firms have approached Johnson about being a spokesman.

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