Reebok tries to salvage 'Dan & Dave' Olympic ad O'Brien's failure spoils campaign


NEW YORK -- Never mind the running, jumping and swimming scheduled for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. All eyes are now on the furious scrambling, ambushing and maneuvering by the Olympic advertisers.

Most notable is an event that could be called the mad --. Reebok International Ltd. is hurriedly revamping its $30 million Olympic campaign to recover from the failure of the decathlete Dan O'Brien to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team when he missed three attempts at the pole vault at Saturday's trials in New Orleans.

Since January, brash advertising from Chiat/Day/Mojo in New York has promoted a Reebok-sponsored grudge match between Mr. O'Brien and a rival, Dave Johnson, to decide who is "the world's greatest athlete."

"To be settled in Barcelona," commercials, print advertisements and billboards promised.

Not anymore.

"You roll the dice," Chip Campbell, president of International Sports and Events Strategies, a New York sports and events marketing firm, said yesterday. "Sometimes it works out perfectly; sometimes it doesn't."

His comments pointed up the pitfall of basing a big campaign on athletes, whose injuries and other problems can instantly disrupt an advertiser's long-made plans.

It was the third time in a little more than a year that a sports star's difficulties had generated intensive coverage of the impact on his ad career; in that dubious distinction, Mr. O'Brien joined Bo Jackson and Magic Johnson.

Reebok had contingency plans "based on one athlete not making it," said David Ropes, Reebok's vice president of worldwide advertising. He said Reebok intended to resume the campaign, as planned, during NBC's coverage of the Olympics July 25 through Aug. 9, but that a one-shot commercial to "reinforce our support of Dan" might appear before then.

Mr. Ropes demurred at describing the content of future ads other than their emphasis on Dave Johnson, who made the team.

Mr. Campbell speculated that Mr. O'Brien might "become Dave's biggest fan, saying, 'You've got to carry on for both of us.' They can schmaltz it up as much as they want."

Mr. Campbell was among a number of executives not yet willing to consign Reebok's "Dan and Dave" campaign to a Marketing Hall of Shame alongside New Coke, the Edsel and Chiat/Day's surrealistic "Reeboks let U.B.U." ads that baffled consumers in 1988.

Bruce S. Nelson, a fan of the campaign since it began during Super Bowl XXVI in January, said, "If they can be nimble and turn it around, it could really be stunning."

"The jury's still out," said Mr. Nelson, executive vice president and worldwide director for strategic creative development at McCann-Erickson Worldwide in New York. "The question is whether they can move quickly enough."

Local advertising executives agreed that Reebok made the right decision in trying to salvage the campaign. Phyllis Brotman, president of Image Dynamics, which designed the ads for the Olympic gymnastic trials in Baltimore, said Reebok should refocus the ads on the friendship between the two athletes. "It's the story about two friends, one who's going to the Olympics this year and one who will go in 1996," she said.

Allan Charles, creative director at Trahan, Burden & Charles, suggested that Reebok rewrite the commercials to emphasize how much Mr. O'Brien needs good athletic shoes.

Mr. Charles said Reebok is paying for gambling on athletes not yet established as celebrities.

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