Titan Chris Johnson makes a run at pitchman status

Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 11:45pm

When the Titans toyed with the spread-option formation at times this season, Tennessee fans got a chance to see what running back Chris Johnson could do as a pitchman.

Now, all of America might get the chance to see what Johnson can do as a different sort of pitchman. After becoming just the sixth man in pro football history to run for 2,000 yards in a single season, Johnson and his agent Joel Segal are preparing to launch the star running back’s second career — as advertising spokesman.

They hope to solicit endorsement offers by taking advantage of the 24-year-old Johnson’s sudden rise from an unheralded East Carolina back to NFL superstardom in just two years.

Even by Johnson’s speedy standards, that’s fast. So it’s not surprising that his agent is in the process of determining just how marketable the young star might be.

“Chris obviously has established himself as a superstar on the field, but is also is establishing himself as a superstar off the field,” Segal says.

One deal with Johnson & Johnson baby lotion is already in the works. In it, he’ll share the spotlight with Houston Texans standout receiver Andre Johnson. CJ, or CJ2K, as he branded himself after reaching the 2,000-yard milestone, believes it could be just the beginning in his quest to become a successful pitchman.

But does Johnson possess the other pitchman musts — looks, personality, savoir-faire?

“I really think I’ll be pretty busy this off-season,” Johnson says. “I want people to know me. I want to be out there. I want to be everywhere, [so when] you look around, you see me.”

And there it is — Johnson’s unflappable confidence, which, second to his athleticism, may be his biggest selling point. Not only did he set the 2,000-yard goal midseason — and reach it in the season finale — but he’s repeatedly said he’d like to compete in a foot race with Olympic gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man.

Johnson’s abilities and accomplishments on the field, including earning a starting spot in the Pro Bowl, speak for themselves. But the general public also can be turned off by arrogance, especially in high-paid athletes. In which case, perhaps Johnson’s sense of humor can be his saving grace. Who could forget his bongo-drum-playing act after a touchdown run in Kansas City as a rookie?

“I believe the likeability of the athlete is important. Is this a person that people find appealing?” explains Don Roy, a professor who teaches sports marketing at Middle Tennessee State University. “And it doesn’t hurt to have high levels of on-the-field success. [His] breaking 2,000 yards this season, I believe that opens some doors for him as a product endorser.”

Former Titans president Jeff Diamond, who now works in marketing for the Ingram Group in Nashville, says Johnson would appear to have a marketable persona.

“I don’t know Chris very well, and I haven’t heard him speak a lot, but he seems to be very friendly with the media, and that’s good,” says Diamond. “From what I’ve seen from him, he has a very pleasant demeanor and smiles a lot and seems to be a friendly and likeable young man. And people certainly like what he’s done on the field.”

Is a makeover in order?

One big question regarding Johnson, of course, is whether his image needs polishing. The confidence, sly sense of humor and refreshing honesty are there, but so are his gold teeth (his “grill”), dreadlocks and tattoos — traditionally, not big sells on Madison Avenue.

In appearance, Johnson is starkly different from the clean-cut persona of the Colts' Peyton Manning, Yankees' Derek Jeter or golf’s Tiger Woods — all familiar and popular faces in commercials.

But Fullback Ahmard Hall, who helped block for Johnson this year, says that Johnson should be regarded as one of the “faces” of the NFL.

“[He] definitely should, regardless of what he looks like with the braids and everything. A lot of people try to stereotype him, but Chris is a good guy. He’s a great guy,” says Hall. “He doesn’t get in trouble; he’s never been in trouble. He definitely should be up there with the rest of the guys as the face of the league, according to his accomplishments.”

Diamond, for one, doesn’t believe Johnson's inability to fit 'the mold' as far as the clean-cut athlete-turned-pitchman will hinder efforts to get him marketed.

He has already broken the mold that a small, speedy running back couldn’t hold up under the load of 300-plus carries. So why can’t he shatter the sort of hip-hop culture stereotype to become a salesman that mainstream America will embrace?

“I don’t know that [his image] is a big deal,” Diamond says, dismissing the notion that Johnson isn’t 'Madison Avenue' enough. “I can’t speak for the world, but he’s a good person. He’s honest and a stand-up guy. And I think that’s the key. I think it’s about his physical ability and his speed. He can capitalize on those qualities to make himself marketable to advertisers.” 

Being the “face of the league” can open doors that might never have been unlocked, says Diamond, who notes that Manning has made the smart maneuver of partnering with many companies with whom the NFL is already friendly. Still, becoming someone who can be marketed beyond football is hard to do, simply because of the nature of the game.

People don’t often recognize football players as easily as they do baseball or basketball stars or even golfers, simply because they’re hidden underneath a helmet and pads while performing.

“In football, it’s a little bit harder to do that than in other sports, because you wear a helmet and people don’t always recognize your face,” Diamond explains. “Peyton Manning has been able to do that. Chris Johnson, with his ability on the field, might be able to do that. A guy like Manning has been able to increase his visibility by aligning himself with some of the same companies that already sponsor the league.”

It's not that CJ hasn't tried to get notice, even though playing football in a small-market city like Nashville. He has had a flair for the flamboyant since he entered the NFL. On numerous occasions, he has indicated that he considers himself an entertainer and points to the likes of Chad [Johnson] Ochocinco and Terrell Owens — viewed by the NFL and to some extent the public as showoffs, free spirits or malcontents —as players he looks up to.

And even though he has been a running back his entire football life, he said his boyhood idols was speedy and dynamic cornerback Deion Sanders, one of the league's most polarizing figures. All of which will be digested by potential suitors as Johnson also has said advertisers will get only “him” — that he's not going to change for anybody.

So despite his blossoming NFL superstar status, the real question is, “Would you buy Wheaties from this guy?”

The next steps

So with Johnson now firmly in the consciousness of the NFL mainstream with his banner season, Roy suggest that Johnson make the transition from athlete to spokesman by starting locally with products that are closely related to football.

“What tends to happen — where most early career athletes tend to start — is endorsing products closely related to what they’re known for,” he says. “Then as they have success, they’re able to branch out and start endorsing more mainstream products, products not related to just sports. I think given Chris Johnson’s success in his first two seasons, he now is becoming a prime candidate to become known as an endorser.”

Diamond says Johnson’s talents as the fastest man in the NFL should be worth something to companies for whom time and speed are essential.

“His speed obviously is the quality on the field about him that stands out. As the fastest running back in the NFL, that’s something that can be marketed and that companies who are in the business of doing things where speed or time is involved could make a tie-in with him,” Diamond says.

Such unusual traits and skills have been marketed in successful ad campaigns before. Former Tennessee State and Dallas Cowboys star Ed “Too Tall” Jones is starring in a GEICO Insurance commercial some 30 years after his NFL heyday.

“There, GEICO is using his notoriety as a tall professional athlete, and I believe a company could leverage that characteristic of Chris Johnson and his quickness and make the point about a product or service being fast,” Roy explains.

Going further back, O.J. Simpson, the original member of the 2,000-yard club, parlayed his on-field accomplishments into a memorable Hertz rental car commercial in the 1970s in which he was filmed running through an airport.

“I believe a company should zero in on the characteristics of Chris Johnson as a professional football player because of his performance capability and tie it into an advertising campaign,” Roy says.

CJ's gotta be CJ

Whatever company Johnson may align himself with, he says he won’t be comfortable doing anything that doesn't feel natural to him.

“It all depends on that company, what type guy they’re looking for,” Johnson says. “Everybody wants a different type of guy. I’m not gonna change anything. I’m gonna be myself.

“Companies want people to act like themselves. I don’t need to act a certain way. They’re gonna get me. They’re gonna get Chris Johnson.

Segal stands behind Johnson and believes his uniqueness is part of his client's charm.

“Chris is Chris, and he doesn’t have to do anything other than to be himself. And that’s a big part of what makes him special,” he says. 

Diamond says Johnson seems to have the personality and talent to be marketed, but that just like any player on the field, sometimes a little coaching doesn’t hurt either.

“First of all, he has the talent. In order to have success as a spokesman, you first have to have success on the field, and he’s done that,” Diamond says. “If he wants to be a successful pitchman, he might want to do something to work on his media skills a little bit, but that’s often the case with many young players.

“I also think there is something to just being yourself and having people like you for what you do on the field and who you are.”

One of Johnson’s teammates certainly knows the drill. Jevon Kearse was marketed similarly to Johnson after he splashed onto the scene in 1999 as “The Freak” and helped Tennessee reach Super Bowl XXXIV.

Kearse wound up being in commercials for Pepsi, DirecTV, Right Guard, Reebok and EA Sports. He said the door was difficult to open at first, and that once he left Tennessee for Philadelphia as a free agent, the combination of a bigger market and his entrepreneurial agent Drew Rosenhaus made things easier.

“It’s sort of hard. A lot of times it depends on the market you’re in or whatever. If I think about the things I did down here, and then the things I did in Philadelphia, the market was much bigger up there. But once you’re in, you’re in. But you’ve got to get in first,” Kearse says.

Make no mistake, Johnson wants in, and in a manner of speaking the advertising ball is now in his hands.

“Chris can do whatever Chris wants to do,” his agent Segal says. “When Chris puts his mind to something, he is a very determined person, and he can achieve whatever he wants to accomplish.”