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Is there a celebrity in the future of your TV campaign? More importantly, is this celebrity going to be an athlete or an entertainer?

Don't say, "Who cares?" Because viewers do. In recent years, they've been noticing more and more "convincing and believable" athletes in commercials at the expense of you know who-"I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV." The status of the two celebrity types has flip-flopped over the past decade, so that there are now almost two mentions of an athlete for every entertainer.

An obvious reason for this trend is increasing consumer acknowledgment that while entertainers are only performers, the athletes actually perform. That is, athletes acquit themselves in always credible ways, whereas the entertainer's gambit is to suspend your disbelief.

The more we see of an athlete, the more we imbue him (or, too rarely, her) with credibility. For this reason, basketball players almost always outscore the boys of summer and fall. Because their personalities aren't hidden under caps or helmets, as in baseball and football, and we, as viewers, believe we're seeing the "real thing." Also, the camera personalizes their drama in ways other sports can only emulate. (The NFL has even had to penalize its players for taking off their helmets on scoring touchdowns).

That there are so few basketball stars helps their status as well.

Fewer still are mentions of female athletes in campaigns. Only two have made Video Storyboard Tests' list of top athletes over the past decade: Mary Lou Retton in 1985 and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. Like all Olympians, these two are burdened by the fact that they can capture our imagination only once in four years. A Michael Jordan, by comparison, is on display every day, his playing reminding us of his endorsements, his endorsements reminding of his play.

"Young people don't have real heroes," says Phil Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO Worldwide, New York. "To them, athletes have become not only role models but almost father figures."

Mr. Vadehra is president of Video Storyboard Tests. Write him at 107 E. 31st St., New York 10016. Fax him at (212) 689-0210. Campaign Clout reports on consumer response to current advertising.

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