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Ads, Activism and You.

Athletes, more so than most other celebrities and influencers, have a complicated relationship with online authenticity.

Unlike reality stars, musicians or YouTubers, athletes’ professions do not naturally allow them to show off their personalities – meaning that fans’ desires to follow their favourite footballers on social media are borne out of support for their on-pitch actions, rather than interest in their personal lives.

The result is highly commercialized, airbrushed social media accounts with enormous followings – such as those belonging to Cristiano Ronaldo. Should you have a burning desire to scroll through never-ending brand deals and squeaky-clean holiday pictures (almost certainly posted by management), then the Juventus star’s Twitter and Instagram should satiate you instantly. Even his Twitter bio – a profile section usually intended for a brief description of the user – is solely reserved for a brief discussion of ‘Privacy Policy’ and a link to his merchandise website.

Despite this, Ronaldo boasts an extraordinary follower count across his various accounts, including 322m on Instagram. The downside? A mere 1.91% engagement rate on his Instagram posts. According to Insider, Ronaldo can command £1.15m from a brand for a single post on Instagram – for which the brand would ‘only’ get 6.15m engaged viewers out of over 300m.

For a comparison, you can look at perhaps the most authentically engaged star athlete around – Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. With around 25.2m followers across his socials, Rashford is a hugely influential name (albeit not on Ronaldo’s level) – but uses his influence to be an authentic force for good. While his Instagram features several brand partnerships and standard action shots, it also features frank discussions of race, politics and his own personal issues.

Rashford’s philanthropy and social impact has clearly engaged social media users significantly – as his Instagram engagement rate of 5.4% is almost triple that of Ronaldo. While a smaller audience helps, Rashford is a clear example of the possibilities created by being an authentic and powerful social media presence, rather than a celebrity with little to no personal links to his or her audience.

Of course, authenticity can also cause controversy. A wonderful example of this is the case of Colin Kaepernick – an American football quarterback who, in 2016, started the trend of kneeling during the US national anthem to protest race inequality. His message and form of protest caused division on an enormous scale, meaning that social media posts with the tag ‘Kaepernick’ rose from 98 posts per day to 16,825 posts per day.

Brands can learn a lot from how Nike utilized Kaepernick’s position to drive engagement. They produced a powerful advert named ‘Dream Crazy’ in 2018, featuring Kaepernick, Serena Williams, LeBron James and many others, with the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” The advert was divisive – drawing immense support as well as mass criticism. The result? 65 million views in five days, a one-day 7.2% stock rise and feverish attention and discussion.

In 1990, Michael Jordan famously stated: “Republicans buy shoes too.” He was attempting to justify his refusal to openly endorse Harvey Gantt – an African-American Democratic candidate for Senate running against a notorious racist in his home state of North Carolina. Jordan didn’t want his authentic beliefs to divide opinion among his consumer base and affect sales, but that was before the social media era. In 2021, an authentic statement of opinion or support from an athlete can still alienate certain consumers – but the marketing game is all about audience engagement, and engagement doesn’t discriminate between positive and negative opinion.

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