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United States: Lincoln pins hope on Magic Johnson

Ex-Spartan, Laker great could boost struggling Ford brand

By Mark Truby / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- Former Michigan State star and basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson has agreed to a multiyear endorsement deal with Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury division, according to company officials.

Johnson, a wildly entertaining basketball player with a 1000-watt smile, could help Lincoln Mercury project a more youthful and energetic image. The two automotive brands are trying to stanch falling sales and financial losses in recent years and have struggled to attract younger buyers.

"Magic is not just going to be a celebrity spokesperson for us," said Sara Tatchio, Lincoln spokeswoman. "He is someone we can develop a much broader relationship with."

Johnson and Lincoln Mercury President Darryl Hazel are scheduled to announce the agreement today at a news conference in Dearborn. Ford is describing the deal as a "multidimensional marketing relationship" that will include television and print commercials and other cross-promotional materials.

"Magic is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world," said Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc., a company in Evanston, Ill., that matches advertisers with athletes. "He is very likable and approachable, which many athletes are not these days."

Johnson, a Lansing native who turned 44 on Monday, was one of the sports world's most prolific celebrity endorsers before he announced in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus and was retiring from professional basketball.

"Within six months, he had lost everything," Williams said.

But Johnson has followed his remarkable basketball career with an impressive second act. He has become a major philanthropic force and ambassador for AIDS awareness as well as an entrepreneur with a growing business empire.

His holdings include movie theaters, shopping malls, restaurants and health clubs. He has lured suburban staples such as Starbucks and TGI Friday's into the inner city and found success.

Fortune 500 companies routinely pay him $60,000 per appearance for motivational speeches. In addition, Johnson runs his own entertainment company and music label.

Nearly everything Johnson has touched in recent years has turned to gold, except for his disastrous and short-lived late-night television talk show, "The Magic Hour."

"Magic is a very credible spokesperson," said Jim Sanfilippo, a vice president with AMCI, an automotive marketing firm in Detroit. "He has overcome personal adversity, and he is quite a successful businessman."

Johnson's efforts to bring jobs and economic development have won him credibility with middle- and upper-class blacks, a segment of buyers that automakers want to reach.

At Mercury, sales are off 23 percent this year. Lincoln's sales are up 7 percent this year, but the brand still trails BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, and Cadillac in wooing upscale buyers. As recently as 1998, Lincoln was the top-selling luxury marque in the United States.

Lincoln Mercury's affiliation with Johnson also could help reintroduce the brands to younger buyers. The average age of a Lincoln buyer today is over 60, and the brand hopes to draw more baby boomers in their 40s and 50s.

"Magic is not going to attract teen-agers but he could certainly help Lincoln with 35- to 40-year-old buyers who remember his basketball career," said Bob Dorfman, creative director for Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. He also evaluates athletes' potential as endorsers.

One of the first fruits of the deal will be Lincoln's sponsorship of Johnson's "A Midsummer Night's Magic" charity basketball event in Los Angeles on July 24-27. The event features athletes, rappers and movie stars and usually attracts about 40,000 fans.

Lincoln recently signed actress Salma Hayek to help the company reach the Latin community. Golfer Phil Mickelson and country music singer Toby Keith round out Ford's stable of celebrity endorsers.

In 2000, General Motors Corp.'s Buick division signed golf superstar Tiger Woods to a lucrative multiyear deal to help reach younger buyers and traditional import customers.

Johnson played two years for Michigan State, leading the Spartans to a national championship in 1979. In the National Basketball Association, he won five championship with the Los Angeles Lakers and played in 12 all-star games.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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