Blogs & Comment

Lance Armstrong and Nike: A look back at a marketing juggernaut

Nike has severed ties with the disgraced cyclist. But some cringe-worthy ads live on.

Lance Armstrong has even fewer supporters today after Nike terminated its contract with the seven-time Tour de France winner. Armstrong also stepped down as the chair of Livestrong, his cancer foundation. The news comes one week after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issued a lengthy report on how Armstrong participated in “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” ever seen in cycling.

In a brief statement, Nike said: “Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him. Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.” Nike concluded the statement by saying that it would “continue support” for Livestrong initiatives.

For a time, the Armstrong-Nike duo was a potent force in sports marketing. Their advertising openly traded on the cancer survivor’s inspirational message, and in turn, yellow Livestrong bracelets became a trendy fashion accessory that raised millions for charity. Rarely a popular American sport, cycling was elevated to mainstream status as Armstrong mounted his record-breaking streak in France. And Nike cashed in big as bandwagon cycling fans sought Livestrong-branded clothing and gear.

What’s notable is that Nike rarely drops its troubled athletes. The company famously stood by Tiger Woods as he suffered a PR nightmare resulting from his extramarital affairs. Nike also stood by Kobe Bryant after the basketball star was charged with sexual assault. (ESPN’s Darren Rovell believes that Armstrong is only the second athlete to be dropped from Nike. The first would be Michael Vick, who was convicted in 2007 for his role in an underground dog-fighting ring.)

And for a while, Nike did show the same support for Armstrong. In fact, the duo used some of their ads to publicly address critics who claimed the cyclist wasn’t riding clean. Those ads served as a rallying cry for Armstrong defenders who felt he was unfairly targeted by jealous peers.

Now, the same ads are a source of embarrassment for Nike. Just take a look at the script for the ad below: “This is my body. And I can do whatever I want to it. I can push it, study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

In another commercial, images of Armstrong cycling are juxtaposed with those of cancer patients undergoing physical rehab. Again, here’s the script: “The critics say I’m arrogant. A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn’t let it go. They can say whatever they want—but I’m not back on my bike for them.”

It’s worth noting that Nike severed ties with Armstrong only one day after a damaging report was published in The New York Daily News. In the article, it’s alleged that Nike paid US$500,000 to Hein Verbruggen, ex-president of the International Cycling Union, to cover up a positive drug test from Armstrong. The claim is based on 2006 testimony from Kathy LeMond, wife of American cyclist Greg LeMond. Nike issued a statement to say that it “vehemently denies” the allegation.

Here are a few other notable ads from the Lance/Nike era:


Update #2: Deadspin has a list of the companies now distancing themselves from Armstrong following Nike’s decision.