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Brands spend good (sometimes great) money on sponsorships. A lot of brands do. Today, with brand differentiation and engagement more (and more) difficult to come by, sponsorships seem a good way to invest some of a brand’s marketing dollars.

The rationale goes like this: brands get added value from a celebrity’s or an athlete’s accomplishments and talents. Back in the early days of branding we called it the “halo effect,” the halo referring to an angel, a spiritual being superior to humans and, one can only suppose, fitness clothes or running shoes or cola brands. But, as brands have discovered to their detriment, hitching their brand wagons to fallen angels doesn’t always quite work out they way they planned. So what’s the brand version of caveat emptor? “Cavendum sponsors”?

This all came to mind when the story came out of U.S. Olympic gold-medal swimmer Ryan Lochte admitting he lied about being robbed at gunpoint by thieves impersonating Rio policemen. The real story actually involved the staff at a gas station insisting Mr. Lochte and three other U.S. Olympic swimmers pay for a bathroom they vandalized. Ryan’s story broke on the Today show and, given the high-crime rates in Rio, fanned fears of more robberies there and the story took off like Olympic runners at the sound of a shot pistol.

Mark Twain advised, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” which, as it turns out, Mr. Lochte and the other swimmers couldn’t. Embarrassed by the story, local authorities launched a probe, and released a security video from the gas station that contradicted Mr. Lochte’s story. So Mr. Lochte’s account of the incident was a lie. Or, as he suggested in social media outreach, an “over-exaggeration,” a partial truth, and, ultimately, a really stupid thing to do. But you probably know the story, which only got bigger.

But, that’s not the end of the story. They say when it comes to celebrity spokespeople, “a partial truth always turns out to be a whole lie.” Another thing they say is, “liars never prosper” and it turns out that Mr. Lochte won’t. Ralph Lauren, Speedo, Airweave, and Syneron-Candela all dropped Mr. Ryan as a representative of their brands, non-representative of their brand values, deciding no angel he!

Ralph Lauren is not renewing their association with Mr. Lochte. Speedo said that while they appreciated their former relationship with Ryan, they could not condone behavior counter to the values of the brand. Speedo hoped that Mr. Lochte learned from this experience. Then they dumped him in the deep end of the sponsorship pool, donating his $50,000 fee to Brazil’s Save the Children. Syneron-Candella dropped Ryan saying, “We hold our employees to a high standard and we expect the same of our business partners.” Japanese mattress company Airweave ended its endorsement agreement with Ryan too.

So cavendum sponsors. And sure, there’s a degree of risk in anyone brands sponsor, and superstar athletes sometimes get “passes” and come back from public scandals. Behaviors can be modified, but personality defects like narcissism and compulsive lying cannot be so readily cured – no matter how much social media outreach is thrown at it. Although in today’s media-driven, socially-networked, 24/7 society, there’s always a spot for a disgraced celebrity someplace. At bargain basement prices, of course.

Athletes who aspire to the big-money brand sponsorships should wake up to the fact that there’s a big pool of “winners” out there, all of them with agents looking for new income streams for their clients. This year, the U.S. Olympic competitors won a total of 121 medals, 46 of them gold. So there are many qualified spokespeople for brands to pick from. And that’s no lie.

So athletes, keep that in mind! Because with so much real gold out there, sponsors won’t invest any brand dollars in fool’s gold.


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