By Rich Thomaselli
Would you buy a car from Michael Vick?
The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback is a pitchman again. Granted, it’s only a local spot in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area, but the video has already gone viral and, coupled with his on-field comeback and stellar play this year, is sure to rekindle a ferocious nationwide debate over whether the man who first lied and later admitted to murdering and torturing dogs can ever rehabilitate his image.
Mr. Vick, who did a 21-month prison stint for running an illegal dogfighting ring that ignited the passions of canine lovers everywhere, is serving as a spokesman for Woodbury Nissan in New Jersey. There is no cash involved; Mr. Vick is being compensated by having the use of a $54,000 Nissan Armada.
While that is a far cry from the tens of millions of dollars Mr. Vick used to earn annually from deals with marketers such as Nike and Coca-Cola, which dropped him in the wake of the shocking revelations, it nonetheless is a first step on the road back to national endorsements.
"Oh, absolutely," says Darren Marshall, senior VP for Chicago-based sports marketing firm Revolution. "Maybe it will take until the end of the season, but the whole image makeover is almost complete. This is the start of the snowball running downhill for Vick. It might take somebody who’s a little edgier to take the first plunge nationally, but it’s going to happen."
The Woodbury Nissan spot is actually formulaic in nature, showing Mr. Vick in his No. 7 Eagles jersey moving about the dealership in what partially resembles a spoof of "The Office." It shows him in predictable scenarios with fellow salespeople, including being asked to sign a football among other paperwork, throwing a set of car keys to a colleague and leaving a mark on the man’s hand, and diagramming a sales strategy using X’s and O’s on a whiteboard.
Woodbury Nissan general manager Thomas McMenamin, who appears in the spot with Mr. Vick, did not return a message by press time. Another dealership employee, when asked in an online chat if the spot was running on TV or just on the dealerships website, offered this statement, unsolicited:
"We at Woodbury Nissan respect the work Michael Vick does with Humane Society of the United States. As a role model for many young people, Michael Vick was selected by The Human Society of the United States to share his story in an effort to reach at-risk youth. We, too, support his role in their crusade to end dogfighting and other forms of animal cruelty."
David P. Reuter, VP-corporate communications for Nissan Americas, told AdAge.com that "our dealerships (like other automakers) are individual businesses and as such they each make independent decisions about who to use in their marketing efforts. Nissan North America does not have a direct relationship with Michael Vick nor do we have any plans to."
Yet as predictable as the spot might be, the quandary is that Mr. Vick comes off just as telegenic and personable as he did before pleading guilty in August 2007. He has already regained much of his popularity as a player — the Eagles are in first place in the NFC East Division, he is a favorite for the Most Valuable Player Award, his jersey is the 20th biggest seller this season on NFLShop.com, and he is currently the leading vote-getter in the public vote for the NFL’s Pro Bowl — and he has been engaging and self-effacing in interviews.
"You know what? If he keeps playing the way he’s playing, he’ll have more endorsers than he had before," Mr. Marshall said. "You look at any of these guys who get involved in these scandals, they all come back and as long as they play well they still can regain their endorsements. The only one who hasn’t come back is Tiger [Woods], and that’s because his play sucks. The American sports fan — any sports fan, really — has the memory of a gold fish."
When it comes to Mr. Vick’s crimes against dogs, however, the public might have the memory of an elephant.
On Yahoo Sports, the public debate raged with nearly 400 comments. The Football God wrote, "Thanks Woodbury Nissan for showing a side of Vick we the public forgot. This ranks right up there with your showing Leona Helmsley helping us to save on our taxes. Or Lindsay Lohan looking for crack in the windshield, Or Susan Smith showing us how to buckle children in a car. And finally O.J. slashing prices. Keep up the good work."
But a poster named Duke replied: "To all concerned, Michael Vick, is not a thief,a rapest [sic], a murderer, a terrorist, and any other type of person who would commit a crime against humanity. In my opinion, his only crime was poor judgment and being under influence of so call [sic] friends. He deserves a chance to be a member in society again. So far, he is doing just that."#