Both achieved their career successes before they turned 40. Lance won seven Tour De France biking races. Neil was the first person to walk on the moon. They overcame tremendous odds: Lance stared down a 40% chance of recovery from cancer by embracing his own experimental treatment. Neil regularly dared Fate as a test pilot and then a modern-day explorer working 240,000 miles from the Earth.
But there are also stark differences. Neil had little to say to the public as he accomplished his feats, which made what little he did say quite memorable (the "one small step for man" line is the only one I can recall, and it's a doozie). Lance was in front of cameras every time he competed, and his comments and image (and income) were greatly enhanced through millions of dollars of commercial sponsorship from the likes of Oakley, Nike and Anheuser-Busch. Neil earned a $17,000 salary the year he landed on the moon, according to fellow astronaut Michael Collins.
After his accomplishments, Neil pretty much disappeared from public view, working as an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. He didn't give interviews, and when he learned that his autographs could fetch big bucks, he stopped signing them. At 80, he half-seriously said he'd be available to lead a mission to Mars someday.
Lance has always been in the public view: his Lance Armstrong Foundation, started in 1997, has raised almost $500 million (and made those yellow wristbands a ubiquitous fashion statement). In August he gave up fighting evidence that he used illegal drugs during his racing days, and thus had his wins erased from history. He very seriously vowed to continue his work helping cancer survivors.
I think Neil is the role model, and Lance is the celebrity. Here's how the differences matter:
Actions speak louder than words. The best content for the social web isn't the stuff created for it by marketers, but the facts and events of real life that people discover and see value in sharing. Neil stayed out of the way, which made whatever we discovered seem more genuine and relevant. Lance was the opposite, working to come up with ever-newer reasons for consumers to pay attention to him, which made his message less memorable. Role models are found. Celebrities are promoted.
Don't tell people what to think. There was no "official" story about Neil's military or space exploits other than what people chose to care about, while Lance's biking and cancer stories were enshrined on web pages and billboards. Celebrities are contrived, in the sense that they are created by conscious intent and design. They're branded. While that makes it easier to label them, it's also easier to see through and past them. Role models are anointed by those who look up to them -- if you promote yourself to be one, you're likely not.
The larger they come . . . When corporate sponsors elevate characters to celebrity status, it's almost a dare to us to discover some ugly fact about their lives. Celebrities don't stand on their records but declare or imply other attributes, which, as in Lance's case, means they're almost certain to disappoint us someday. We're prepared to forgive role models like Neil because they never claimed the job in the first place.
Ultimately, Neil Armstrong stood for things that were beyond purchase, while the image Lance Armstrong's patrons bought proved not to deserve the full price tag. Maybe it's not possible to hire or manufacture role models, which is why brands spend oodles of money teeing up celebrities in their place.