Why did fans and sponsors drop Lance Armstrong but stayed loyal to Tiger Woods? Probably because the former’s doping scandal took place on the field, unlike latter’s off-the-field affairs, new research suggests.
A series of studies conducted by University of Michigan doctoral student Joon Sung Lee suggests that when fans and consumers can separate an athlete’s immoral behaviour from their athletic performance, they are much more forgiving than if the bad behaviour could impact athletic performance or the outcome of the game.
The latter happened with Armstrong’s doping scandal, which fans viewed as performance-related, a reasoning strategy called moral coupling, said Dae Hee Kwak, co-investigator of the study.
The former American professional road racing cyclist Armstrong’s career suffered tremendously, and Nike eventually dropped him.
The opposite happened with Woods, the American professional golfer who is among the most successful golfers of all time.
The transgression was not performance-related, and fans and consumers could more easily separate Woods’ extramarital affairs from his athletic performance, the researchers said.
They rationalised the behaviour – moral rationalisation – or deemed it irrelevant to the game, called moral decoupling.
Woods’ career did not suffer nearly as much, and Nike continued its sponsorship and even developed ads to help Woods resuscitate his image, researchers said.
“Based on our findings, one could argue that based on consumers’ views, Nike’s decision was a smart one,” Kwak said.
“Sponsors can monitor how consumers view the transgression. They could look at social media, and also conduct surveys or focus groups to see if consumers tend to separate or integrate judgements of performance and morality,” Kwak said.
“Based on their target consumers’ views, marketers can determine when they should continue or discontinue their relationship with the athletes in trouble,” said Kwak.
Researchers presented study participants with different athlete scandal scenarios. When they asked participants how they viewed a doping scandal, 59 per cent selected moral coupling strategy and viewed the athlete negatively.
When asked for their views on a tax fraud scandal, which is non-performance related, only 28 per cent selected moral coupling and viewed the athlete negatively.
The study appears in the Journal of Business Ethics.