Lance Armstrong: The Robin Hood of Cause Marketing?

By Steve Lundin, Principal, BIGfrontier Media Communications Group

After spending most of 2012 hearing about what a bad guy Lance Armstrong might be, Oprah has sunk to the challenge and scooped the prize off the bottom of the sewer: she provided the platform for Armstrong to confirm all our suspicions. It’s open season on the reedy rider, and he’s a nice, wounded target for everything from mainstream news outlets to unread basement bloggers. Google his name and you’ll find the same list of adjectives used to describe despots, dictators and even serial killers: sociopath (MSNBC), liar (Washington Post), loser (CNN), lying doper (The New Yorker), and the list goes on. Nice to see that Fox and MSNBC can finally agree on something.

The scarlet letter on Armstrong’s yellow jersey is so big, his former sponsor, the USPS, should give it a zip code. But outside of a clear case of egomania (and dating Sheryl Crow), what were Lance’s real crimes?

Through another lens he took money from those who had it and spent it on promoting an idea that lives on millions of wrists in the form of a little yellow rubber band: cancer is no longer something that has to be hidden away in shame. Admittedly it’s a far philosophical cry from getting people to wear shirts that proclaim “Hey, I’ve got AIDS,” but in his own undeniable way, Lance Armstrong is a warty cause marketing Robin Hood for those stricken with cancer.

Lance is accused of not only embarrassing the USPS (I thought that was the mission of their chubby mascot), but of roping them into the biggest doping conspiracy in professional sports. Imagine being able to embarrass a government agency that has been running in the red since 2006 and spends 80% of its total operating budget on salaries and benefits? If anything he should be accused of raising false hope that the postal service could get anything anywhere ahead of anyone else. His other sponsors, like RadioShack, Trek and Nike certainly benefited from his rise and will probably receive an additional post holiday publicity bump from his fall. Maybe consumers will reward them with some sympathy buying because they been done wrong by the twisty tongued Texan.

And then there’s the whole of professional sports itself. According to many pundits, Lance has single-handedly raised doubts about the purity of role model athletes in general. Given Arnold’s cheating, Mickey’s alcoholism, Pete’s gambling and Tonya’s violence (to cite just a few examples), he’s in good role model company. 

To make matters even more murky, there’s no shortage of articles and tell-alls about Lance’s personal style (evil egomaniac), team management (egomaniac slave driver), and Livestrong Foundation (personal PR platform for an evil egomaniac slave driver). On top of all this, Lance has also been accused, by his peers, of shifting the focus of professional cycling to just one competition: the Tour de France. As if, they yell with injured indignity, there was no other competition in the world. And the fact that this grandstanding competition is in France, of all places, merely adds a pound of salt to this gaping psychic wound. Clearly on paper, Lance Armstrong is the most evil fellow in the world. But we’re not talking about paper here, we’re talking about rubber.

Lance didn’t take his winnings and go all pro football bling and Bentley. He had his eyes on a higher prize. In true marketing spirit, he personally and professionally aligned himself with one niche issue, and he did it with surgical precision. While there may be investigations about how Livestrong’s money was spent, and how much of it was used to fly Lance to places like his Global Cancer Summit (Dublin 2009, promoted by Ogilvy), one thing is undeniable: he somehow convinced 80 million people to acquire and presumably don a little yellow rubber bracelet. How many cause marketing firms can lay claim that that kind of success?

By his own admission, Lance has broken the rules. He’s been a bad guy. He’s got some ugly under his skin. If half the accusations concerning his doping are true, he may not even be a fallen hero, he came to the game broken. But he has been efficient in changing a fundamental perception of one thing: morphing the concept of victim to survivor. In a society that famously shies away from imperfection, that hides disease, Lance threw out the playbook and flaunted it.

He “robbed” the sponsors of their money to fund this mission and he did so with unimpeachable success. He helped advertisers sell millions of products and media outlets sell ads, boosting the flaccid images of the USPS and Radio Shack along the way. Can we really feel so sorry for global brands and well heeled advertisers? Is a little fame too much of a commission to pay for these services?

If anything Lance’s true crime is narcissism, and a fitting punishment that utilizes his skill set would be a something like a marketing professorship. And maybe he could milk the controversy a little more and convince FedEx, Best Buy and Adidas to reprint all those little yellow bracelets in red with the words “Cheatwell.” Because if any of the other stories concerning doping behavior are true, he wasn’t the only doper, just the most successful one who actually made people “think different.”