Sportswear: the Model vs. Athlete Debate

— WE Communications 

When Bella Hadid was announced as the face of Nike’s Beautiful x Powerful campaign, many fans of the brand reacted angrily on Instagram and Twitter, condemning Nike for using a model instead of an athlete to front their iconic sportswear label. Despite the backlash, other sportswear brands such as Puma and Adidas have also launched campaigns with Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, and Karlie Kloss, respectively. So what is driving sportswear brands, who formerly used athletes exclusively for their advertising campaigns, to take a PR risk and use fashion models instead?

With the power of social media only growing stronger, it’s undoubtable that a primary reason for the switch is that models like the Hadid sisters have huge social media followings on Instagram that outstrip those of even the world’s top female athletes. For example, although Maria Sharapova has made a record $285m in endorsement deals over the course of her 11 year career, her current following on Instagram is only 2.6m compared to Bella Hadid’s 14m followers.

In addition, with the continued development of ‘athleisure,’ sportswear brands see fashion models as a way to exploit the ‘leisure’ and ‘luxury’ elements of the trend. Models with large social media followings that fit established beauty and physical ideals (i.e. tall, thin, toned) are a safe way to establish the aspirational element of these companies and guarantee maximum exposure. Using non-athletes in advertising campaigns can also help bolster the message that Nike can be worn by everyone.

However, the argument goes, when female professional athletes are passed over for models for endorsement deals and advertising campaigns, it continues a tradition of inequality between male and female athletes and sends a message that athleticism is more about the way one looks aesthetically, than how one performs. Male athletes are typically compensated more than their female peers, and also given many more opportunities for sponsorships across a variety of sectors. By forcing female athletes to compete for advertising deals with fashion models, companies seem to devalue their athletic achievements. In addition, in our already thin-centric, beauty-obsessed culture, casting models for sportswear campaigns creates a missed opportunity to celebrate a diversity of body types.

As sportswear continues its recent renaissance within the fashion industry, brands will need to walk the line between using celebrities and models, already adept at using their large social media presence to promote products, and staying true to their brand identity as providers of the top and most innovative athletic gear to the world’s best athletes. By using models, they may successfully establish connections between their respective brands and the luxury fashion industry but end up alienating consumers who care about strong brand integrity and diversity within advertising.

That being said, the benefits of using a fashion model with the celebrity reach and influence of the Hadid or Jenner sisters are hard to ignore. Considering the fickleness of consumers, strong brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Reebok can afford to weather the temporary and relatively small PR fall-out and stand to reap the rewards of gaining the attention of these models’ millions of social media followers.