Are Ads on Uniforms Really Ads at All?
A veteran adman discusses ‘sponsorship,’ ‘brand activation,’ ‘helmet entitlement partners,’ and the language of advertising.
As most Uni Watch readers probably know by now, I’m staunchly opposed to corporate advertising on sports uniforms. But another thing that bugs me is the language of uniform ads. Teams and leagues never refer to the ads themselves as “ads,” and they never refer to the advertisers as “advertisers,” instead using diversionary terms like “sponsor” or “branding partner” (an issue I first wrote about back in 2016).
I recently mentioned this on Twitter when the NHL’s New York Rangers announced their new helmet advertiser:
That prompted some pushback from one of my followers, Ben Thoma, who tried to explain to me why an outside company’s logo on a hockey helmet is actually not advertising:
Ben Thoma isn’t just any old Twitter follower. He’s a longtime Uni Watch reader (since at least 2007) and, more importantly for the topic at hand, he’s also a longtime professional in the ad industry. Here’s a quick bio he recently provided at my request:
After earning my Visual Communications degree in Advertising Design, I went to work in marketing and advertising agencies. I’ve pretty much done it all: coupon ads, billboards, mailers, digital microsites and banners, TV spots — all as an Art Director and eventually a Creative Director. I worked for seven years in NYC at three agencies and three years in Austin at two agencies. I’ve had some great brands as clients: Volvo, John Deere, the U.S. Air Force, AXE (yes, the body spray), and more.
I eventually left the agency world and worked for a while in production and project management for a software company, helping them drive their marketing process. And now I am driving product and brand marketing for the training and certification department of Atlassian, a software company that builds work management tools like Jira, Trello, and Confluence.
Thoma obviously cares about advertising, and I know he cares about uniforms as well. So I thought he’d be an ideal person to enlist for a deeper conversation about the language of advertising, and about whether a paint company’s logo on a hockey helmet does or doesn’t qualify as advertising.
Thoma and I spoke by Zoom a week ago, and it was a faaaaascinating discussion. Here’s a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Uni Watch: One of my pet peeves is that teams and leagues never refer to ads on uniforms as ads, and they never refer to the advertisers as advertisers. They always refer to them as sponsors, or partners, or patch partners, or jersey patch partners, or branding partners. And so I recently made that point on Twitter, regarding the New York Rangers' new helmet ad, and you responded:
“As someone who works in the field, buying sponsorship, and getting your logo on a piece of apparel, is not buying an ad. As an advertiser, I would never call it that. It’s branding, or maybe an ‘activation.’” You put activation in quotes.
Now, before we get to the differences between all those terms, can you understand why the average person, someone who doesn’t work in marketing or branding, would roll their eyes at that statement?
Ben Thoma: Absolutely. Because what advertising has taught me is that intent does not equal perception.
UW: What do you mean by that?
BT: I intend to put out a message to the world through the work that I do to help the brand that I work for, whatever that is. Once I put it out in the world, it’s completely in the hands of the receiver. And so you do your best to control the message or frame the message so the communication is what you intended. But someone can completely take it the wrong way.
What I was interested in was, you know, framing a little bit of the conversation. I think most people in the field, the people who are making these decisions and working with these leagues and teams, they would say that that particular thing [a patch on a jersey or a decal on a helmet] just doesn’t do what an advertisement or what a marketing message should do.
UW: Okay, but I’m not talking about people in the advertising or marketing industry, or people who work for teams or leagues. I’m asking if you can understand that the way you phrased it — “this is branding,” or “this is an activation,” or whatever, but it’s not advertising — might get the average person, not a person who works in that field, to roll their eyes a little?
BT: Oh, yeah, totally. I spend a lot of time thinking about advertising and marketing and the language, because it’s my job. Using thoughtful language helps in the way we communicate what we do internally. But I totally get that, you know, the average fan is gonna say, “Look, they put an ad on the helmet.”
UW: What is the difference? Can you explain, as you see it, the difference between advertising, sponsorship, branding, and activation? And why does something like a patch on an NBA jersey not qualify as advertising?
BT: First of all, I’d say I think of advertising as a pretty big umbrella. And so, yeah, a company’s logo on a patch worn on an NBA jersey squarely fits within that umbrella. But I think that there’s some benefit in the nuance of certain types of advertising you can do under that umbrella, and what those types do for a brand or don’t do for a brand.
So for me, the fundamental difference is this: Advertising is about delivering a message, whereas branding is usually around impressions. Every brand wants to gain impressions — it’s why Nike puts a swoosh on their shoe in such a big way, because then their product is also a brand impression. Now, the message that the shoe sends, you can’t define that, right? That shoe says something different to every person. So I’d say that’s branding, not advertising.
UW: And when you say true advertising conveys a message, you mean like some sort of scripted narrative?
BT: Yeah. And so when I think about traditional advertising, I go to mediums that are different, where there usually is a message, whether it’s a billboard, a bus stop, a TV or radio spot. Usually, a brand wants to convey something, whether it’s something new about their product, or a tagline. And that usually leads to what is called a call to action — you know, purchase, inquire. “Learn more” is the worst one, but it’s used so frequently. Anyway, there should be some kind of message and usually a value proposition in that.
So when I look at just a company logo on a helmet or jersey, I don’t know what value that logo brings to me. Like, I don’t know why to buy that product. By putting it there on the helmet, they’re trying to affiliate themselves with a product that a fan is going to appreciate. But if that company’s marketing or advertising staff is worth their salt, they’re not just putting that on the helmet — that’s part of a much larger purchase they’ve made, which gets them the poster in the arena, gets them the TV ad during the game, gets them the radio announcer call or whatever.
One of the reasons I kind of got animated about this one was because an advertiser would never just buy that [the helmet]. So that’s not the ad to me — that’s just the brand impression that they got as part of this mix of media that they’re getting. It’s an overall campaign or partnership that’s benefiting them in a lot of other ways. Advertising is repetition and reach, and you get repetition through the number of impressions you get, and you want that brand association in as many places as you can possibly get it. So that is kind of where I get into saying, “This is a branding play, because you’re just looking at that one particular tactic.” Tactic is another word that we use a lot. That’s one tactic.
UW: Okay, so “advertising” is for message and “branding” is for impressions. What about “activation”?
BT: I may have been using that a bit loosely, but activations are often used with events. Like, Caesars has the naming rights now for the Superdome in New Orleans, and there’s no way they bought that without having a whole slew of marketing activations with it. I’m sure they have street teams that are going to be handing out cards to download their app, or they’re going to have a booth at the stadium that lets you throw a football into the Caesars logo. Those are activations. And I don’t think Caesars would put their name on that stadium if it wasn’t for all that activation opportunity around it. The name alone is probably not enough.
UW: Okay. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth here, but I’m going to try to boil down our respective positions. Your position, I think, is that because a jersey patch or a helmet decal is part of a larger overall package of advertising, or promotion, or marketing, or sponsorship, and because the patch is not itself a message or message-driven, you would not call it an ad. Whereas I would say that I fully understand that the patch is part of a larger package, but this component of the package — the patch on the jersey — is a form of advertising. And that to call it something else, I find sort of deceptive, especially when the something else is cloaked in the language of fellowship and goodwill, like “partner” or “sponsor,” rather than the language of commerce, which is what this is all about. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with commerce — believe me, I engage in plenty of commerce! — but I do think that if we use plainspoken, straightforward language, that makes it easier to assess good commerce vs. bad commerce.
BT: I kind of agree with your point about the “sponsor” or “partner.” I think you’re absolutely right, that a sponsor traditionally is someone who made something possible. But to the average Joe fan, which is what you were talking about, I think they would definitely say “sponsor.”
UW: Oh, for sure. I fully concede that that type of language has basically become part of our cultural vernacular — but in a way that I feel is inaccurate and is basically a Trojan horse that opens the door to more and more advertising, because it’s much easier to get more advertising in there if you call it something else. That’s what bugs me, that’s why I’m trying to push back against it.
How about this: A minute ago you were trying to explain what is or isn’t advertising, and you said that a billboard is advertising. But I’ve certainly seen billboards that don’t have a message — they just have a logo. So are you really trying to tell me that a billboard on the side of the road with a giant Pepsi logo is not advertising?
BT: To me, that is a brand impression. It’s not good advertising in the sense that you’re —
UW: Wait wait wait — I didn’t ask if it was good advertising. I’m just asking you whether it is or isn’t advertising.
BT: Well, like I said at the top, it sits under the umbrella of advertising. So to me, it’s fair [to call it advertising], even though I wouldn’t call it that. It’s really semantics.
UW: Okay, but I don’t see the difference between a billboard on the side of the highway and a patch on an NBA jersey, regardless of whether they’re message-driven. In each case, someone who owns a certain space has sold that space to a business entity that wants to promote itself. Isn’t that pretty much the definition of advertising? So if the billboard with the Pepsi logo is advertising, why isn’t the jersey patch with a company logo advertising? Isn’t it just a very small billboard?
BT: I guess for me, it’s about matter of wanting a better specificity of what type of advertising it is. By just saying it’s advertising, it becomes so broad that it’s missing the value of that type. It’s like, if you said to me, “That’s PR,” I would say, “No, it’s not really PR.”
UW: I would agree with you there — an ad on a jersey is not PR.
BT: But some people might say, “No, it is PR, it’s good PR, you get your brand everywhere, it’s good PR, it’s good publicity.” And to me, that’s an aspect to it, but it’s not as accurate is what branding is. So to me, it’s the same situation where like, you’d be absolutely right to call it advertising, but I would choose to make it more specific — branding or a brand impression.
UW: I totally get what you’re saying. But one reason I find that language troubling is that we all know there’s a debate about our society having too much advertising, whereas branding is seen as a more positive thing — people are now encouraged to develop their personal brand and all that. So when you take a form of advertising and call it branding, it feels to me like you’re using this more benign term to sort of whitewash the reality of the situation. And then you can escape or avoid certain critiques by, well, rebranding the ad as branding, instead of just calling it advertising.
And just to be clear, I’m not 100% opposed to advertising. I run advertising on my blog, there are plenty of TV commercials I think are clever or even brilliant, and I even have some vintage print ads framed and displayed in my house. But I do think that advertising, like so many things, is a mixed bag. I think there are some places where it doesn't belong, and I think its role in our society is worth questioning, so I think calling it something else feels a little insidious in that regard.
BT: You should know that the people who hate advertising the most are the people in advertising. Oh, and my wife just said, “And their wives.”
UW: Why is that?
BT: Because so much of it is terrible. And not in the sense that people are trying to do things that are terrible. It’s just that we’ve given ourselves so many avenues and so many spaces to fill that it’s impossible for the quality to match the quantity. So when you do see something good, it’s just so refreshing. And I think also we ultimately know how people feel about us, like we’re like one rung above car salesmen. It’s not like you’d tell your son or daughter to grow up to be an advertiser.
UW: What about the ads that we now see on the back of the mound in Major League Baseball games — is that advertising, in your mind?
BT: I hate those. And it’s not like advertising hasn’t existed in sports — like, yeah, the outfield fence has always been filled with ads. But with the mound, now you’ve literally crossed a line, you’re on the field of play. And they’re so poorly done — one thing I’ve learned in this business is that, as an advertiser, you are interrupting every time you’re showing up. You’re generally never called upon to come into people’s lives — you’re always interrupting. And so you might as well make it worthwhile so that it’s worthy of someone’s time to interrupt them. And those mound ones, every time I see one, I’m like, “It’s not worth it.” Sometimes you can barely read it. There’s nothing there.
Is that advertising? Again, I would call it branding, or a branding opportunity. Is it a type of advertising? Yes. Either way, it’s not worth it.
UW: One of the catchphrases we’ve seen a lot of the NHL teams using for their helmet ads, or branding, or whatever you want to call it, is that they refer to the company as a “helmet entitlement partner.”
UW: You’re laughing as I say that, which I guess is appropriate, because that term — “helmet entitlement partner” — sounds somewhere between laughable and Orwellian, at least to me. And it’s not just one team — lots of NHL teams have used that same term. Not all of them, but many of them. And it’s not just in the fine print of the contract. They’re using that term in their social media posts, on their websites. That’s how they’re communicating with their fan bases.
BT: I’ve never heard “entitlement” used. I don’t even know how that meaning is defined. “Helmet partner” would have been good enough. Yeah, that just throws a weird wrench into the mix that makes you stop and pay more attention to it. Like what does that even mean?
UW: Why would a team do that? Wouldn’t it probably make the average fan even more cynical and alienated than they already are?
BT: Well, I can’t speak for fans. I guess the teams will find out.
UW: Let me ask you this: Would you agree that one issue people have with corporate marketing and advertising — rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly — is that they think marketing and advertising tend to be deceptive and misleading? And again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily true. But would you agree that that’s a common perception?
BT: Oh, it’s definitely a perception, although I don’t think it’s altogether accurate.
UW: But if that is the perception, wouldn’t it make sense for the advertising and marketing world to use more straightforward language when referring to itself? Like, “helmet entitlement partner” —
BT: But is that the marketing company doing that? Or is that the NHL doing it?
UW: Does that even matter? They’re both part of the transaction.
BT: I think I know why you’re asking the question, because you want it to be more clear, right? You want to have more transparency.
UW: Yes, exactly. On the one hand, here’s an industry that suffers from a perception problem about how it communicates to the public, and then it’s referring to its own activities by throwing around terms like “brand activation” and “helmet entitlement partner,” which to most people just sounds like corporate gobbledygook. So yeah, to me that just reinforces the notion that this industry is not interested in transparent communication.
BT: I think it’s an industry that talks to itself a lot and should do a better job of understanding the customer’s reaction. Because if you’re not listening to your customers, then why are you doing it? But there’s so much — bureaucracy might be the wrong word, but there’s so much work that we’ve created within the work to get something out the door. It’s almost like that term, “helmet entitlement partner,” was created by someone who was talking to someone within the larger ecosystem without thinking about the customer. And one thing I do give smart advertisers credit for is that when you’re good at what you’re doing, you acknowledge the intelligence of your customers. And so this is a case where I think they’re not doing that, because they’re saying something that doesn’t make sense.
UW: Let’s try a thought experiment: Let’s say you work for a pro sports team in their communications department. They’re about to announce that they have sold space on their uniform to an outside company, and now it’s your job to write the press release for that announcement. What sort of language do you use?
BT: I think I would probably lean into sponsor and partner.
UW: We’ve mostly talked about language here, but I want to wrap up by getting you to make a prediction. Do you think American sports uniforms will eventually look like European soccer kits, where the advertiser’s or sponsor’s logo supersedes the team brand? And if so, how long do you think it’ll take to reach that point?
BT: I was thinking about this because my son’s love of soccer has now made me an Austin FC fan. And Yeti [the Austin-based outdoor accessories brand whose logo appears on Austin FC’s jerseys] is a brand that I admire, because I’m an Austinite. So I’m like, “This makes sense, it’s logical.” But where is the team logo? Like, you can’t even see it. Now, I know what the team logo looks like, because I’m here in Austin. But what about when someone else looks at that uniform? To me, the identifier is Yeti, like this is Team Yeti. To me, that’s the inverse of how it should be. The uniform should represent the team first and the sponsor second.
So will it happen with other American sports? I don’t know if I could say it won’t happen, but one reason why it might not happen is that soccer is uniquely set up for it with its crest or badge iconography, so you have all that space available on the chest. But that doesn’t work in sports where you have logos and scripts on the chest.
UW: Hmmm. But think about this: You just mentioned your son being a soccer fan. If a whole generation of kids like him gets used to seeing “Yeti,” or whatever, on the chest of their favorite soccer team’s jerseys, will that just look normal to them? Could it even reach the point where they think a jersey should look that way, because it doesn’t look “official,” or something like that, without the ad or sponsor?
BT: I think that’s more in the hands of the sports marketers — the teams and leagues — than the advertisers. Advertisers generally take what they’re given — like, here’s the space you’re given, now what do you want to fill it with? So I don’t think the advertising community would ask for it as much as the sports community would offer it. I hope that won’t happen in my lifetime.
I found that to be a really interesting discussion. Educational, too! Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Personally, I’m going to keep referring to uniform advertising as “advertising,” but I understand why an industry professional like Thoma might use other terms, and I appreciate his tutorial on the various terms and their meanings.
One final footnote: A few days after this interview, the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets announced a new helmet advertiser. The second paragraph of the press release included this quote from a team executive: “We are excited to activate iDesign’s brand on the NHL’s national stage.” Sure enough, an “activation,” just like Thoma said. I’m not sure if that’s the first time a team has used that language, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve noticed it.
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NBA Season Preview: With the NBA season now underway, my annual Uni Watch NBA Season Preview has all of the uni and logo details that you’ll be seeing on the hardwood. You can check it out here — enjoy!
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.