Super-swimmer Michael Phelps returned to big-time advertising Sunday with a TV spot for Subway titled "Be Yourself." Oh, the irony.
Surely Phelps -- 14-time Olympic gold medalist and endorsement juggernaut -- was being only himself, only human, when he was photographed in November hitting a bong at a party at the University of South Carolina. That photograph, first published by the British tabloid News of the World in January, resulted in a three-month competition ban and cost Phelps a reported $500,000 deal with Kellogg. The swimmer promptly issued a sniveling apology, copping to "regrettable," "inappropriate" and "youthful" behavior (doesn't the latter want to excuse the former?). Phelps, 24, has more or less cheerfully dined on PR ashes ever since, in interviews with Matt Lauer, among others.
Interestingly, the apology from the world's fittest stoner infuriated proponents of legal weed, who saw the episode as a missed opportunity to advance the cause. After all, if Aqua-Man smokes bud, how bad can it be?
This is the greatest Olympian of all time, a man chandeliered with gold medals on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His achievements mock the moral hysteria that traditionally rains down on marijuana.
The Subway ad itself is nothing special. It's a compare-and-contrast between Phelps' glamorous life as a sports superstar and that of Jared Fogle, Subway's former-fatty mascot. Jared prefers the low-fat sweet-onion Chicken Teriyaki sandwich, while metabolic dynamo Phelps dares to eat the foot-long Meatball Marinara with Jalapeno, containing 1,060 calories and more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium.
Eating these will not make you an Olympic swimmer. A floating island, maybe.
Culture deconstructionists will pick the spot apart for oblique references to the scandal. Phelps' chin whiskers are kind of bro-ish, for instance. He does look a trifle baked (could be the chlorine). AdWeek's Eleftheria Parpis wrote that "you can almost hear all the blunts lighting up in support as Sly & The Family Stone's 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' kicks in."
And it really is too bad that the sandwich franchise's website is subwayfreshbuzz.com.
Even so, the Phelps-bong scandal seems to have been safely put to bed, and now that it has, it's worth asking, what have we learned? The consequences to Phelps -- actually, the lack of consequences -- suggest that something bigger than mere endorsement dollars is in play. It seems Phelps has moved the weed needle.
Yes, USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, suspended Phelps for three months, time he used to whip himself into shape after his post-Olympic bacchanal. (The organization also withheld its monthly stipend, an amount that probably wouldn't put gas in Phelps' Bentley.)
Yes, Kellogg declined to re-up with Phelps, but tellingly, other endorsement deals remained intact: Speedo, Omega, Subway and Mazda China. Subway didn't hesitate to stand by its man (though it did postpone the current ad campaign six months to let the agita die down). Mazda required Phelps to record a minute-long mea culpa directed at the people of China -- mortifying but harmless. In June, Phelps inked a deal with H2O Audio, maker of high-end waterproof headphones.
In other words, there were no serious consequences. To the extent that endorsement opportunities are a rough metric of how well someone in public life is liked, admired, respected, the bong-heard-round-the-world scandal might as well never have happened. With the benefit of hindsight, Kellogg execs might well be kicking themselves.
You could ascribe the missing fallout to Phelps' incredible personal magnetism or -- far more likely -- to the fact that advertisers saw little downside to being associated with bong-meister Phelps.
Nor should they. Across the board, marijuana is being steadily decriminalized and de-stigmatized. In a Field Poll in May, 56% of Californians favored legalization, slightly ahead of the roughly half of Americans who favor such a move. Thirteen states have legalized medical marijuana, and three more are considering it. In a dozen states, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is not illegal. One hundred million Americans have smoked pot, and about 14 million use it regularly, according to federal government studies. U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has said the federal government would no longer raid California medical marijuana dispensaries.
Ethan Nadelmann, of the legalization-advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, told the Associated Press last month: "This is the first time I feel like the wind is at my back and not in my face."
I'm sure, given the choice, Phelps would prefer not to be a milestone on the road to the marijuana's mainstreaming. Still, what we're witnessing is the death of a certain kind of shame.
Advertising -- and that's what celebrity-athlete endorsements are -- is a highly sensitive antenna of culture. Because it strives to reach, hold and please the greatest number of people, it represents a special threshold of cultural acceptance, the floorboards of the norm. The return of brand Phelps says more about us than it does about him.