Researchers have finally figured out the reason why big, goofy Michael Phelps can score millions in endorsement deals while few companies even bother hiring female athletes to be their spokeswomen — sex appeal. Male athletes like Phelps that have a suitably disarming grins aren't heavily exploited for their sex appeal the way female athletes are. Advertising tactics right now (for anyone who doesn't ever see advertisements) revolve around youth and sex rather than athletic prowess, which means that, when advertisers use female athletes to sell things, they usually use them incorrectly.
According to two researchers from the University of Delaware, even on the rare occasions when companies make use of female athletes, the gambits often prove unsuccessful. Researcher John Antil explains that this advertising narrow-mindedness is closing all kinds of doors for athletes who only have a small window of time to capitalize on their marketing potential. "The way female athletes are being used as endorsers," he explains, "negatively impacts their effectiveness and reduces wider opportunities for other female athletes."
The researchers gathered their data through focus groups, asking participants to react to ads and discuss their insights. Ads that focused on an athlete's physical splendor were often viewed negatively because such ads emphasized the differences between the spokesperson and the viewer, rather than making that spokesperson relatable. For instance, study participants seemed to especially dislike a "Got Milk?" ad featuring Dara Torres in a bathing suit because, rather than highlight Torres' personal and athletic achievements as a 40-year-old world-class athlete and mother, the ad focused solely on her physique. Study co-author Matthew Robinson wrote,
Respondents suggested this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family. 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.
The main problem is that advertisers made little effort to make female athletes relatable in the same way that companies have tripped over themselves to make male athletes like Peyton Manning America's Official Pitchman For Everything. Of course, advertising misuse isn't the only problem female athletes face — many of them simply aren't as well-known as their male counterparts. Since affability — or seeming affability — is the hallmark of advertising success, having a low-profile immediately puts female athletes at a disadvantage, especially once the glow of Olympic success fades at the end of the games. It's a shame, too, because I would definitely buy a swing set if Gabby Douglas told me to.