Marketers flock to former soccer star's show

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[Buenos Aires, Argentina] Diego Maradona makes his debut as a TV host tonight in a weekly program that's generating massive interest from marketers keen to tap the buzz surrounding the revival of Argentina's former soccer star.

"La Noche del 10" ("The Night of the 10") airing at 10 p.m., will feature celebrity interviews, games, live music and prize draws. Buenos Aires broadcaster Canal 13 is plugging it with the tagline: "God has arrived on TV." And to spur intrigue, the network is letting rumors swirl about invitees, a spokeswoman said. Brazilian soccer legend Pele is scheduled for the first show, and race-car driver Michael Schumacher and actor Antonio Banderas are rumored for future shows. Ads-priced at $700 per second, the highest TV ad rate charged since Argentina's 2001 economic collapse-product placement and sponsorship are expected to sell out.

"Maradona has immense recognition with all consumers," said Guillermo Tafet, general manager of Starcom Buenos Aires.

Indeed, Mr. Maradona, 44, is re-emerging as the hottest ad pitchman in Argentina, a claim lost to bad press during a long-running cocaine addiction. He is slim and energetic after stomach-stapling surgery, and appears on TV shows and works with the hugely popular Boca Juniors soccer team.

"He now personifies resilience and social responsibility," values advertisers are keen to associate with their brands, said Horacio Castelli, a brand image consultant. Whereas English soccer ace David Beckham provides star power to brands, Mr. Maradona brings "human values," he said.

Mr. Maradona "went the highest, and fell the lowest," said Omar Bello, president of Leo Burnett Argentina. "He is the clearest symbol of recovery there is."

CTI Movil, a cellphone carrier investing millions to improve services after recent complaints, is a sponsor of "The Night." And last week, Swiss Medical Group broke a TV spot by local hotshop Lado C starring Mr. Maradona, a user of the private health service since 1989. Driving a truck, he brakes to avoid squashing a stray soccer ball. After flashbacks to his glory days, he kicks it back to kids playing a match. The tagline: "Like he always treats the ball, we treat him."

Of course, there is a hitch. "Maradona could overshadow brands," said Starcom's Mr. Tafet.

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