In Depth

Nike, Oakley React to Oscar Pistorius Murder Charge -- Nike's 'Bullet in the Chamber' Ad Yanked From Pistorius' Website

By Michael McCarthy
Advertising Age

Nike's ad for Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius seemed like typical Swoosh bravado in 2011.

"I am the bullet in the chamber," read the copy next to photos of the South African double-amputee firing off the starting line.

But after Mr. Pistorius was charged with murder in the Valentine's Day shooting death of model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, the ad was yanked from his website Thursday.

With the debate over gun control raging in the U.S., the Pistorius shooting also set off an Internet debate over how far Madison Avenue should go when employing "bullets" and other violent terms or images in ads.

"Is weaponry and violence too serious of a metaphor to employ so casually in marketing?" asked blogger Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports.

Nike and other corporate sponsors of the jailed 26-year-old Pistorius reacted quickly to the horrific news from Pretoria, South Africa.

Nicknamed the "Blade Runner" for racing on carbon-fiber blades, Pistorius made history at the 2012 London Olympics by becoming the first double-leg amputee to participate in the games. The world's most famous Paralympian is expected to appear at a bail hearing Friday.

"Nike extends its deepest sympathy and condolences to all families concerned following this tragic incident," said the Swoosh in a statement. "As it is a police matter, Nike will not comment further at this time."

Oakley and BP Global both said they were "shocked" by the news, but both declined to comment further, citing the investigation.

Nike and Oakley recently dropped disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong after it became clear he lied about using performance enhancing drugs. But the two marketers and Pistorius' others sponsors in South Africa and Europe will have to navigate very deep waters, said Eric Dezenhall, author of "Damage Control."

O. J. Simpson is the most famous athletic endorser charged with murder. But Hertz dropped Mr. Simpson in late 1992 when reports surfaced of domestic-violence incidents between him and his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. So the deal was history when he was charged with murdering his estranged wife and Ron Goldman in 1994.

Other endorsers such as Mr. Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, and Kobe Bryant have lost sponsors due to their use of performance-enhancing drugs, engaging in extramarital affairs, running dog-fighting rings and being charged with sexual assault. But there's few examples of American athletes in their prime charged with murder.

One would be wide receiver Rae Carruth of the NFL's Carolina Panthers, who was found guilty of conspiring to murder his eight-months-pregnant girlfriend in 2001. Cherica Adams died. But she lived long enough to finger Carruth after the 1999 shooting. Her unborn son, Chancellor Lee Adams, survived after an emergency caesarean section.

Linebacker Ray Lewis of the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens was charged with two counts of murder in 2000. But the charges were reduced when he agreed to testify against his friends. When Mr. Lewis was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXV, Disney chose quarterback Trent Dilfer for its "I'm going to Disney World" ad campaign instead of the controversial Mr. Lewis.

Mr. Dezenhall, the crisis-management adviser, said he'd advise Pistorius' sponsors to "express great distress," then keep their mouths shut until they find out more facts. Meanwhile, he predicts Nike and other marketers will "chill out" on violent imagery in ads.

After Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Woods and others, the public is almost numb to athletic scandals. "Some of this celebrity malfeasance is kind of baked into the casserole at this point," Mr. Dezenhall said.