Endorsements: How Sports Stars Get Inside Your Head

Buick recently ended its $3 million per year relationship with golfer Tiger Woods. Then NBA star LeBron James lost his connection with Microsoft after less than two years promoting the company. Finally, David Beckham's endorsement deal with Pepsi went flat.

All three companies blamed the struggling economy. Was that the reason, or were these endorsements doomed from the beginning? For years, researchers have tried to develop models to explain consumer behavior and our emotional reactions to celebrity endorsers. Matching the right spokesperson to the right product is the key.

The three leading theories for endorsement marketing, Source Credibility, Source Attractiveness and Product Match-up, guide companies in making the right choice.

Credibility combines expertise with trustworthiness. The more an athlete is perceived to know about the product, the more credibility points he earns with the audience (i.e. Tiger and golf clubs). Attractiveness ties together likeability and familiarity of the athlete. The more a consumer wants to "be like Mike", the more effective the message. Like credibility, a logical marriage of athlete to product makes for an effective match-up. A relationship that seems forced probably won't make sense to us. Using these models, the Tiger/Buick, LeBron/Microsoft and Beckham/Pepsi match-ups seem illogical in our minds. It may be that our mirror neurons were not firing as the advertisers expected. Located in the prefrontal cortex, these neurons can be activated by observing someone else making an action. When you watch Beckham kick a soccer ball, the same neurons light up as if you were actually kicking the ball. This reaction is the basis of imitation learning theories.

Marketers are now trying to make use of this brain function by observing consumers' brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In his recent book "Buyology" (2008, Broadway Books), Martin Lindstrom begins to apply this neuroscience to why we buy things. According to Lindstrom, Abercrombie and Fitch use this idea in their stores — the "large blow-up posters of half-naked models" make your "mirror neurons fire-up." That might be a stretch, but Roger Dooley, consultant and author of the blog Neuromarketing, does see a connection when using athlete endorsers. "This research suggests a basis in neuroscience for the 'believe in your product' advice," Dooley wrote.

"While the individual hearing the sales pitch may be listening to the words, her brain's mirror neurons are firing at the same time in reaction to the salesperson's emotions, demeanor, etc. If there's a disconnect between the words that are cognitively processed and the emotions that are mirrored, the pitch will probably be less effective. Neuromarketers should take note, too - while ads normally employ professional actors who have the ability to accurately simulate the desired emotions and state of mind, pitches that use celebrity athlete endorsers... may suffer if the viewer finds the emotions don't match the words." We can watch Tiger hit a golf ball with his Nike clubs and our brain can imagine (or fantasize) about swinging those same clubs. But, watching Tiger drive a Buick or imagining LeBron working on an Excel spreadsheet breaks the mirror and the connection with our hero. Of course, seeing Beckham dressed as a cowboy, surfer and gladiator while drinking a Pepsi destroyed much of his athletic credibility. Companies will continue to invest in athletes and their persuasive powers over the masses. Forbes magazine recently named the ten most influential American athletes, as ranked by respondents to a survey by E-Poll Market Research. Woods tied with Lance Armstrong for the top spot, with 36 percent describing them as influential. Twenty-five percent said James was influential. As long as the products they pitch match their athletic profile, our neurons will open our wallets.

Dan Peterson blogs about sports science at his site Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.