NEW ORLEANS — The sleekly efficient Reebok marketing machine, which brought us the Dan & Dave Show, coughed and sputtered briefly Saturday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. Half of its engine, world champion decathlete Dan O'Brien, pulled over and broke down in the pole vault.
"Dan-Dave. Who is the world's greatest athlete? To be settled in Barcelona." Suddenly, a six-month, $25-million advertising campaign had lost its premise.
Despite gaining no points in the pole vault, O'Brien continued competing, proving at least his grit. What remained to be settled: How would Reebok recover from what could become a huge marketing blunder?
Within 10 minutes of O'Brien's stunning no-height, the shoe manufacturing giant had regrouped. Two Dan and Dave commercials scheduled to be aired during NBC's Saturday telecast were pulled. Company officials huddled to discuss their contingency plan, which they had devised months ago should one of their world's greatest athlete candidates falter.
Within an hour Reebok officials were crowning Dave Johnson, who won the decathlon, with their mythical title. Their strategy betrayed the message of the ads, which suggested a contest. What was revealed Saturday was that Dan-Dave had always been interchangeable parts. From a corporate viewpoint, if one of the parts malfunctioned, that could be corrected.
According to Ford Ennals, president of Reebok's fitness division, the shoe company had always considered the possibility that one of the athletes could be injured or otherwise not be available to "settle" the question. He said that of the 15 commercials shot in February for the campaign, a handful were designed to feature only one of the athletes, rather than bantering together as the current ads show.
"We have contingency plans for carrying on with Dan or Dave," Ennals said. "We have the material. We're discussing whether or not to use it. We don't need to refilm."
Ennals' disclosure addressed the day's prevailing question: Had Reebok erred in building a massive marketing campaign on the twin presumptions that Dan-Dave would make the U.S. Olympic team \o7 and \f7 win medals at Barcelona?
"I was always concerned that they put all their eggs in one basket," said Jim O'Brien, Dan's father.
Reebok officials acknowledged that such a campaign was a dicey proposition, especially when it rested on the backs of athletes, not always the most reliable of performers.
"We recognized there was a risk factor," said Chester Wheeler, Reebok's senior director of international marketing. "When we started this thing, Dave was recovering from knee surgery. That was a big risk."
Risks are part of the game in athletic promotion. Nike spent a fortune promoting the versatile Bo Jackson, who knows only retirement at the moment. It would be predictable but not entirely fair for others in the highly competitive athletic shoe industry to be laughing at Reebok's expense.
"The payoff was supposed to be them competing in Barcelona," said Liz Dolan, a Nike spokesman.
Reebok gambled further by flooding the crowd here with free Dan-Dave merchandise. A company spokesman said Reebok spent about $20,000 to hand out hats, T-shirts, hand fans and buttons to spectators. Each item bore only the name of Dan or Dave, which played into the company's wish that fans show their preference. Effectively, balloting by T-shirt.
There was a run on Dan shirts and hats after his world-record pace of the first day. However, the public changed allegiance soon after O'Brien's lack of success\o7 .\f7 Workers reported a brisk exchange business, Dave for Dan.
Reebok is not likely to suffer greatly from O'Brien's untimely breakup of its premier marketing team. In addition to some residual embarrassment, Reebok will also receive priceless publicity from the events of Saturday.
By all measures, the Dan-Dave campaign has already surpassed the marketing expectations of those who devised it.
"It's been phenomenally successful," Ennals said. "The product Dan and Dave represented has been our most successful running shoe."
Wheeler said that because of the success of the campaign, Dan-Dave-related products "blew off the shelves."
"It's a hero product," he said.
That the hero proved to be human might not affect shoes sales. But O'Brien's absence from the U.S. Olympic team has surely ruined the marketing plans of at least one other group: his family.
"The family was going to be going into the fan-club business," Jim O'Brien said. He and his wife, Virginia, had already printed and sold Dan T-shirts of their own. "We were going to help underprivileged kids. We had all kinds of plans."
Many lofty schemes were dashed Saturday, but publicity marches on.
"This campaign is not dead," Ennals said.
Not if the athletes have anything to say about it.
"We're going to be Dan and Dave-ing it until 1996," Johnson said. "You'll be sick of us."
O'Brien's contract runs through 1997.
To be settled in Atlanta?