Q&A: Why Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez And Lindsay Lohan Might Have A Few #*%@ Words For Gerry Philpott
LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez, Lady Gaga and Lindsay Lohan are A-List celebrities. But one place they're not always given an "A" grade is at E-Poll Market Research, a Los Angeles-based firm that continually gathers and updates public opinions on more than 5,000 athletes, celebrities and others who make and/or impact the news. However, according to Gerry Philpott, E-Poll president, CEO and founder, sometimes getting a "bad" grade can be a good thing.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted August 11, 2010)
Since 1997, E-Poll Market Research has been a vital source of information for content providers, entertainment companies, marketers and ad agencies worldwide. The company, headquartered in Encino, Calif., not far north on U.S. 101 from Hollywood, conducts polls with and gathers information from "a nationally representative sample" of the general population of America. Among the categories constantly tracked on an in-depth basis are public opinions on athletes, celebrities and newsmakers (broken down into nearly 50 attributes such as awareness, appeal and talent); brand equity, real and animated people and characters that target kids and viewer attitudes on more than 600 TV programs.
E-Poll turns the raw numbers into strategic data that can have both immediate and long-term impact on the way companies do business, especially E-Poll clients that receive proprietary information. And the list of companies and agencies that are or have been clients is a virtual Who's Who of the brands that touch millions of people every day, including Allied Domecq, Electronic Arts, Estée Lauder, Hanes, Nascar, NFL, Pepsi, Pfizer, Reebok, Sprint, Starbucks and Time Inc. Not to mention a plethora of the top TV networks, production companies, Hollywood studios and ad agencies from BBDO to Young & Rubicam.
Sometimes the numbers are favorable, sometimes not. A recent E-Poll survey, for example, asked participants to list sports-related figures they most disliked. The top ten (in alphabetical order): Gilbert Arenas, Al Davis, Allen Iverson, Jerry Jones, Mark McGwire, Terrell Owens, Alex Rodriguez, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Tiger Woods.
E-Poll surveys are often cited in articles about how public opinions regarding athletes and celebrities affect the way marketers, and the celebrities themselves, do business. The New York Times recently profiled Miley Cyrus' career change in which she has been transitioning from Disney pop idol to sexy young woman inspired by evidence, including E-Poll research, that showed she was losing contact with her target audience of tweens and teen girls. Darren Rovell of CNBC used an E-Poll study to compare the endorsement potential of rookie NFL quarterback Tim Tebow to veteran sports marketing figures such as Michael Jordan. And a MediaPost article (full disclosure: written by this author) included E-Poll information to highlight the changing marketing and endorsement attitudes among the public regarding such sports figures as Kobe Bryant, Tim Tebow, LeBron James and Tiger Woods.
Gerry Philpott, president, CEO and founder of E-Poll Market Research (a division of Bridge Entertainment) has more than 25 years of experience assessing the pros and cons of public figures, including executive positions with Gannett/Multimedia and ABC Television. He spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the values, personalities and attributes that marketers are attracted to — or repelled by — in sports and Hollywood stars.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You've been doing this for a while. Do you ever see anything that surprises you or makes you say, "I didn't see that coming?"
Gerry Philpott: We don't see too many surprises, but they do happen here and there. However, I do have to say — and if I'm the millionth person to say it I wouldn't be surprised — at how LeBron James and the people he works with came up with the idea for "The Decision" and then how they went about doing it. I guess because we see so many things ahead of time, we are on the leading edge, and on the research side you start to see trends, little things here and there before they get picked up by the mainstream media. We tend to see where people are going. It's always surprising to hear stories such as Tiger Woods and the collapse of his marriage, Kobe Bryant's situation [in 2003] when a woman accused him of sexual assault, the situation with Ben Roethlisberger. But when you hear about someone such as Terrell Owens and all the trash-talking, that doesn't surprise us because we saw it on the horizon a long time ago, long before it became common knowledge to the general public.
NYSJ: James said he had not personally spoken to the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers before going public with his decision to sign with the Miami Heat. Could LeBron have made the situation better regarding public perception had he done that?
GP: Perhaps. In a situation such as that, you almost can't make anyone happy doing something that way. Everyone knew there were a lot of great options on the table for him. Whether he was truly torn or not [to leave or stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers], he had a lot of opportunities presented to him. But he was going to make only one team happy. We know from years of experience that public perception is the second thing you have to do to make people happy. I still wonder why they decided to do it that way.
NYSJ: So in many ways did James put himself in lose-lose situation?
GP: Moving to Miami would have knocked James down in some people's eyes no matter how it was handled. If you talk to your father or grandfather, people used to brag that they knew everyone on their favorite baseball team, from the starters to the bench guys. Players would stay with the same team for their entire career. But if you go back maybe 20 or 30 years, athletes started to move from team to team with more frequency. And there was a sense of betrayal. Somebody will always go down in the perception of some people by leaving one team and going to another. It's the whole feeling of being loyal to someone and then feeling as if they betrayed you. That's now common in sports and shouldn't be surprising to anyone. People know that it's difficult to turn down a boatload of money and the opportunity to do well somewhere else.
NYSJ: What did the E-Poll results tell you about James' status regarding marketing and endorsements?
GP: No one begrudges him the opportunity to improve his position to win an NBA championship. Everyone knows he's got more money than he could ever spend anyway. So he wants that elusive ring. But if you look at the numbers, no one faulted Dwayne Wade when you look at the perception of what happened. I'm talking about the general public here, not the smaller group of die-hard sports fans. Because when you are dealing with $23 million or so in endorsement deals, these endorsers are appealing to the general public. So we really have to watch what the general public is thinking because it's not just a Dick's Sporting Goods, Sports Authority or Reebok type of endorsement. They are looking at large companies whose consumers are not just tied to sports. Gillette, for example, which is owned by Procter & Gamble, trying to sell razor blades and after shave not only to sports fans but also to the multitude of people who are not sports fans.
"LeBron has done nothing wrong except getting caught up too much in PR. I don't see it negatively impacting his role as an endorser whatsoever."
NYSJ: Didn't Wade's numbers actually go up where James and Chris Bosh saw their numbers go down?
GP: When we look at the general public in the LeBron James situation, what the numbers seemed to show was that even though Dwyane Wade was part of this troika in trying to put together this dream team, it didn't negatively affect him. He stayed where he was and was loyal to his team and the fans of the Miami Heat. If anything, some of the numbers rose slightly because they had more respect for him. Chris Bosh left his team, as well, and he had every right to do so if he felt he didn't have the right deal and situation in Toronto. But when you look at how LeBron handled it, the general public perception is not that it was done, but the way in which it was done. The funny thing is that when you look LeBron's numbers before this happened compared to after "The Decision," even his numbers in "Talent" went down. And someone here joked, "Did he lose some talent over the summer!?"
NYSJ: Why do you think his "Talent" numbers dipped?
GP: It all comes back to public perception. Do some of the people who are somewhat following this think maybe he lost some of his self-confidence and that he felt he could not win an NBA championship ring without loading up a team of all-stars? What is his own perception of his talent? Again, this is the general public that we are gauging. If you talk to dedicated sports fans, they could say that it was the perfectly right thing to do, he's on a hot team and he's now in a gateway city that not only has domestic appeal but also international appeal. It's an exciting place. So from the standpoint of being a showcase city, Miami is up there with New York and Los Angeles. And when you look at the NBA schedule, it's going to be all Miami, Los Angeles, Boston and Orlando for the first half of the season until we see how the other teams are playing.
NYSJ: After Woods' accident and all the information came out about his private life, he lost about $30 million in endorsement deals. Do you see James losing any of his deals or perhaps not getting new ones?
GP: The same thing happened with Kobe Bryant, but now years later he has come back. The situations with Tiger and LeBron involve some similar issues but are different in some very key issues. Tiger cheated on his wife. And it was not just once, or one minor mistake. It appeared to be serial. It's very hard to resurrect that. There are a lot of mainstream endorsers that don't want that association. LeBron has done nothing wrong except getting caught up too much in PR. I don't see it negatively impacting his role as an endorser whatsoever. Certainly none of his endorsement deals were terminated. Where we are is that the general public now has a "show me" attitude. With the exception of Cleveland, the general public feels as if he has done nothing wrong except make a bad decision [in how he made his choice known]. But they certainly do feel as if LeBron has to prove his move was the right one.
NYSJ: When Alex Rodriguez recently hit his 600th career home run, there was a relative lack of excitement for such a milestone event. Does that come from the public's perception about his personal life?
GP: Over the years he certainly has not shied away from being in the public eye, and in some cases in not such an endearing way. Leaving the Texas Rangers to go to the New York Yankees [in 2004] was part of it. No matter what he accomplishes on the field, the image the general public has of him is that he denied and then admitted to using PHDs, that he was seen with other women while he was still married and that he and his wife separated and then were divorced [after she gave birth to their second child]. He is constantly seen in very public places with very famous women. At some point, the public says, 'He has everything that he wants: Money, fame, living in New York, a World Series ring. Good for him. But we're not getting too excited about what he does on the baseball field."
NYSJ: Is there an upside to this for Rodriguez?
GP: To be fair, there are people who do like A-Rod and want him to stay healthy and to break Barry Bonds' all-time home run record [of 762]. And his 600th career home run generated a lot more publicity than when Ken Griffey Jr. did it [in 2008]. Griffey has led such a clean, calm, normal, stable life, he's almost the poster athlete for how have a Hall of Fame career and not generate any negative press that would impact the general public. But A-Rod is way down on the list [of likable athletes]. There are a lot of people who just don't like him, whether they feel he is arrogant or privileged or whatever.
NYSJ: His teammate, Derek Jeter, also plays in New York and has been associated with famous women. What has he done, or perhaps not done, that makes him so much more well-liked play by both sports fans and the general public?
GP: Jeter is like any athlete. He had his good times, partied a bit here and there, had his run-ins with George Steinbrenner for maybe partying a little too much. But he's always kept his nose clean. He's always played great baseball. He's never stolen the limelight, even when the Yankees were winning five World Series. He's let other players take the spotlight alongside and even in front of him. That's why his image is much more accepted.
NYSJ: Has Kobe Bryant been the best example of an athlete who went from being among the best-liked athletes to being among the most disliked and then back again in the good grace of the public and marketers?
GP: It does show you what you have to do to get people to like you again. You have to win championships, and not a lot of people can pull off back-to-back championships. Even with that, a segment of the general population looks at what happened years ago and can't get past that. He's done a good job of resurrecting his career and his value as an endorser. People looked at him last season, saw he played with injuries, saw that the [Lakers] faced a lot of challenges. And yet he kept his eye on the prize, kept his mouth shut and put it all out there on the court. He certainly improved his credibility over the past couple of seasons.
"Jeter is like any athlete. He had his good times, partied a bit, had his run-ins with George Steinbrenner. But he's always kept his nose clean."
NYSJ: Will there always be marketers who look for athletes whose images might be on the cutting edge, say Allen Iverson or Carmelo Anthony, as long as they don't go down the path of a Michael Vick or O.J. Simpson?
GP: There definitely is a bad boy-bad girl element to marketing, as long as it doesn't go to the point of a serious crime. It goes back to James Dean and the rebel image he cultivated. Dean is still used in commercials. It's amazing how that very short career he had and that image he conveyed has transcended the years and generations. There are a handful of marketers who want to associate with athletes and celebrities who do attract a certain amount of controversy. Charles Barkley is always good for a good quote, a good sound bite. Allen Iverson had the image that some marketers wanted. As long as you don't cross the line as Vick did. Right now, Ben Roethlisberger is on the line, so we'll see what happens to him.
NYSJ: Is there a Catch-22, which Anthony might have, in which he is in Denver, which is a big city, but he's not in a major media center? So if you don't get that face time in front of the general public, the general public won't know your face?
GP: Probably not with core sports fans, but with the general public, yes. You have athletes who are marketed within their own category, such as Anthony, who have high endorsement potential because they've got the younger, fan-focused following. So they can make a lot of money from endorsements, especially if they stay away from serious trouble. But it is not on the general public level.
NYSJ: James got most of the attention, but will Bosh be the one who benefits the most with his free agent move from the Toronto Raptors to Miami?
GP: Look at the NBA schedule for the upcoming season: The Miami Heat are getting a lot of prime national TV spots they would not have gotten with just Wade on the team. LeBron doesn't need more attention, so Bosh would be the one who benefits the most from face time on TV. Another player is Amar'e Stoudemire going to the New York Knicks [from the Phoenix Sun]. New York is obviously the center of media attention.
NYSJ: You talked about getting reaction from core sports fans versus the general public. How does that apply to endorsements from the marketer's perspective?
GP: You have to look at endorsements from two different levels. One is marketing to those who are part of the fan base. The other is marketing to the general public. Michael Jordan is a good example of an athlete who transcends his sport. Anyone who never saw a basketball game knew what Michael Jordan looked like and knew who he was. The same thing with Lance Armstrong. Even Peyton Manning. You can show his picture to my wife, who has never watched a football game, and she would know who he is. He does [Sony] commercials with Justin Timberlake. He is endorsing products that are being marketed not just to NFL or sports fans but to the general public. That is a level in which you have to have a pretty distinct set of qualities: You have to be dynamic, well-liked and have a recognizable face or name.
NYSJ: Do you see Landon Donovan as someone with huge upside as far as endorsement and marketing potential?
GP: With his great soccer abilities, having been on the national stage and with his distinct name, he is pretty well etched into the minds of the general public. He is a player who could transcend soccer, and there are not many players who have. Mia Hamm, Pele and David Beckham are probably the only other soccer players who would be named by the average person in this country.
NYSJ: Who do you next see among athletes as being able to establish their marketing presence among sports fans and also the general public?
GP: Drew Brees has the attention of sports fans after the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, but now you have to see if he can become like Peyton Manning and transcend his sport. Possibly Tim Tebow, but you still have to see if he can live up to the hype that already has come his way. He recently signed with Jockey, which would possibly mean they see him as attracting the general population. He went into the NFL with very high recognizability and attribute numbers that put him on the level of seasoned pros. If he delivers even half of the promise he's in great shape.
NYSJ: Anyone else from the next generation of sports stars with great marketing potential: John Wall with the NBA's Washington Wizards, Mark Sanchez with the New York Jets, Stephen Strasburg with the Washington Nationals, for example?
GP: Sanchez is showing some early promise, especially if you look at how quickly Reggie Bush fell from grace when the NCAA imposed sanctions on USC dating back to his time at the university. Sanchez, who also came out of USC, is young and a starting quarterback on a team in New York. As hard as New York is on anyone, he came out of his first season looking pretty good. He's out there a bit, but not too much. I'm watching to see how [rookie running back] Ryan Matthews does with the San Diego Chargers where he is replacing LaDainian Tomlinson. Wall and Strasburg, both playing in Washington, their numbers among the general public will get strong if they win and get national exposure.
NYSJ: Who do you see as facing the biggest challenge?
GP: Sam Bradford [No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams] received a lot of publicity coming out of college, but it's going to be tough. He hadn't played a regular season game and the Rams gave him that huge contract [reported to be $50 million guaranteed and potentially worth upward of $86 million over six years], so he's a rookie quarterback making more than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and playing for a team that has won only six games over the past three seasons. So it will be interesting to see how he does.
NYSJ: Who do you see as having staying power in marketing and in recognition by the general public beyond their playing days, much like Babe Ruth?
GP: Michael Jordan is already there. In football, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady perhaps among the current players. [Former players] Joe Montana and Dan Marino are on TV every week commenting, so they can be there. Cal Ripken Jr. has been doing a lot since he retired from baseball. More baseball players could be doing a lot more but won't be able to because of the situation with steroids.
NYSJ: You mentioned bad girls before. On the celebrity side do you see Lady Gaga in the James Dean mold, someone with a rebel image who actually hasn't committed — or at least been convicted of — a serious crime?
GP: You see her at [Yankee Stadium and Citi Field] holding a beer and flipping off the fans, but she has not been arrested, has not accosted anybody, has not specifically trash-talked anybody. She's walking that very fine line and she's doing it very well. I don't know if she's quite pushing it the way Madonna did in the 1980s and 1990s. But the acceptance level [by the general public] has grown to the point where if Madonna today did some of the things she did back then, they wouldn't seem nearly as controversial. Lady Gaga is taking that bad girl image and turning it into very big numbers.
NYSJ: Is Lindsay Lohan a bad girl or just someone who has gotten bad advice and made bad decisions?
GP: Her situation is basically a tempest in a teapot. If you compare it to a sports situation, Venus and Serena Williams were seen in a bad light earlier in their careers, and what made the whole thing even more contentious was the involvement of their father. After he stepped out of [the spotlight], these incredible tennis players were able to show year after year that they were the real deal and not one-hit wonders.
NYSJ: From the polls you've taken, can she get her career and image back on track?
GP: The Lohan situation is almost like a machine. You've got the mother and the father and you've got [Lindsay]. She had a decent start to her career as a child actress and turned that into a teen career. Yeah, she got into a little trouble with some stuff. But then the publicity was feeding the publicity. If she went to a night club, that was an event. And then the parents were fighting with each other to get quote time. Then you have the TMZs and Perez Hiltons of the world fighting over each other to get every little tweet that they put out. So you've got this building tornado. It reminds me of the Warner Bros. cartoons with the Tazmanian Devil, a wild whirlwind that keeps feeding on [itself]. I don't know how you ever pull yourself out of that. But if you look at Robert Downey Jr., he was on his way to an early demise and the end of his career [due to substance abuse], but then he started getting clean again and now gets Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes and other starring roles.
NYSJ: Do you have any words of wisdom to athletes and celebrities?
GP: Surround yourself with good, smart people. Trust your instincts. Start small. If you look at many of the athletes and celebrities who have been popular with the public for a long time, that's how many of them did it. If they made a mistake, it didn't leave a huge, lasting hole on their careers. They survived, built themselves and their reputations.
NYSJ: Do you ever get the feeling that athletes and celebrities have never heard the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?"