Companies have used sports to market their products since the American Tobacco Company included baseball cards in their packages in the early 1900s. Businesses employ sports figures to endorse products ranging from clothes and shoes to cars and restaurants. While sports marketing has become a staple of American advertising over the last century, the mixture of sports and advertising is not without its ethical issues.
The American Marketing Association promotes specific standards of conduct for advertising and marketing professionals to follow. The association expects marketers to follow the principles of honesty, responsibility, fairness and respect. These principles must be applied to interactions with all stakeholders. Ethics in sports marketing can be especially touchy, as sporting organizations often take on the additional responsibility to create a positive ethical image for their management, coaches, players and fans.
From the dispute over Native American mascot names to the role of women in commercials, sports marketers have had to deal with accusations of racism and sexism. Many collegiate sports programs have changed or abandoned their Native American mascots and names. Professional teams like the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Braves face criticism for their nicknames. The Houston Astros were also targeted by critics for their approach to a "Ladies' Night" that featured beauty treatments and a "Baseball 101" class.
One of the most popular methods used in sports advertising is to relate the characteristics of the athletes and teams with products. For instance, the famous commercial for the Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes feature basketball legend Michael Jordan and film director Spike Lee, and the tagline, "It's gotta be the shoes!" The implication was that anyone who wore the Air Jordan shoes could acquire at least some of Michael Jordan's basketball talent. While most viewers saw the humor in the exaggeration, marketers must be cautious not to imply that a purchase can imbue them with extra abilities or talent.
A tactic used by some advertisers is known as "ambush marketing," which involves marketers who insert their messages into an event without paying a sponsor's fee to the organizers. Examples include sponsoring the broadcast of the event, buying commercial time around replays of the event or creating ads that resemble the event's commercial messaging. Advocates of ambush marketing consider it a creative endeavor, while opponents see it as an unethical method to undercut competitors who are legitimate sponsors.