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Faking It: Neymar, Gillette and the Sponsored Apology

It’s the last Sunday of July, 2018. Three weeks earlier in Russia, the Brazilian national football team had crashed out of the World Cup, and star player Neymar’s image had crashed worldwide owing to him faking injuries and #NeymarRolling. Brazil is hurting. Neymar, now back in Brazil, is ducking the media and millions of Brazilians are watching Fantástico, the Brazilian television network Globo’s Sunday night current affairs TV show. Just before 10pm, Globo cuts to an ad break and Neymar appears.

Speaking over 85 seconds of stock imagery of himself, it’s partly mea culpa but mostly tone-deaf self-justification: “you have no idea what I go through off the pitch”, and a plea for absolution, because he has taken time to “look [at himself] in the mirror and become a new man”.

But this is an ad break, so Neymar is of course reading ad copy and fronting an ad, which, as the last five seconds reveal, is for his sponsor Gillette, headlined ‘A New Man Every Day’.

Simultaneously dropped into Neymar’s social feeds, the ad goes viral. Partly because his superfans dutifully recycle it, but also because a consumer and media backlash also goes viral worldwide from Brazil, where the scale of the criticism of Neymar is unprecedented.

And the backlash is dominated by two themes: Neymar only did it for the money, as always; and Neymar the faker is faking it, again. So Neymar’s advisors deflect it to Gillette.

Procter & Gamble, owner of Gillette, denies a story produced by Globo that it paid Neymar over 1m Brazilian Reals ($250,000) for the ad, and releases a statement defending it: “Gillette’s goal is to encourage all men, without distinction, to reflect on the opportunity to become a new man every day”.

The creative director of Grey, Gillette’s Brazilian ad agency, deletes a tweet to Neymar congratulating him on the ad: ‘In less than 48 hours you gave life – and what a life! – to the daydream of a bunch of crazy people…’

A case study, from start to finish, in how not to do it. It has made Neymar’s image even worse. And dragged Gillette into it, too.

The story has a number of lessons for all of the parties involved.

How to re-build Neymar’s image was Neymar’s problem, not Gillette’s.

Making it Gillette’s problem was a bad idea that was inevitably going to backfire, and it should have been obvious to both parties why it was going to backfire. Gillette should have nixed it when Grey, its Brazilian ad agency pitched it, and Neymar and his advisors should never have agreed to it.

It’s not like they were going into unknown territory. Dozens of disgraced sports stars have had to apologise publicly. And to have any chance of being believed, their mea culpa must be live, first person and raw – think of most famously Tiger Woods, or most recently Steve Smith.

But just as importantly, they must do it for free and unbranded. Woods and Smith weren’t paid by a sponsor to say what they said as part of an ad campaign. If they had, they would have inevitably been disbelieved and derided for taking the money and faking it, which is what happened to Neymar.

And given that the backlash was so predictable, what really surprises me is that Procter & Gamble, which have been involved in some hugely successful marketing campaigns, didn’t see it coming.

That the ad agency got it wrong, I understand. Advertising agencies tend to think that the answer to every brand or business challenge is an ad, and they love trying their hand at sports marketing. But when they do sports marketing, brands need a sports marketing expert by their side, or this type of thing can happen.

Neymar? He had previous. A shouty 2011 Nextel ad ‘revealing the man’ and defying his critics. The 2014 ‘We Are All Monkeys’ agency-created social media campaign that was a hit in Europe but tone-deaf in Brazil. Neymarketing is ads and sponsorship and social media and that’s it.

But this wasn’t the moment for ads and sponsorship and social media. It was the moment for Neymar to do a live media interview, for free, and say what needed to be said: that he was going to stop diving and faking injuries on the pitch. And then when the season started, show that he was capable of this. The moment for Gillette to make their move was only after that had happened.

That would have only cost Gillette a few extra weeks and given them time to solve two other big problems: the ad copy’s insincerity and Powerpoint 101 creative, and the ‘Neymar’s only doing it for the money’ PR trap – which would have been avoided by Gillette paying Neymar’s charity foundation, not Neymar.

All that would have shown that Neymar really was a new man, and that he was doing it for real – not for the Reals.

Tim Crow has been at the forefront of sports marketing for thirty years. Formerly chief executive of Synergy, he now advises a range of companies at the intersection of sport, marketing, media and technology. Follow him @shaymantim.

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