What Is 'Mudvertising' and Why Are Marketers Diving In?

It's not about winning

Other partners seem less obvious a fit. Take Dos Equis, a fixture at Tough Mudder, where each of those who completes the course gets a free brewski. MillerCoors made its foray into mud racing last year with Warrior Dash, returning as official beer sponsor this year. “Warrior Dash embodies Miller Lite’s positioning of fostering the bonds of friendship,” says the brewer’s spokesman Jonathan Stern. “Great friends come from far and near to participate in the Warrior Dash. Miller Lite is all about good times with good friends, so the two brands work well together.”

Not everyone likes the idea of beer brands waiting at the finish line with a cold one.

“Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, although a step in the right direction, are not promoting fitness and athleticism … they are promoting a party,” argues Joe De Sena, co-founder of Spartan Race, adding such sponsorships denigrate the sport’s healthy-lifestyle positioning. And yet, if a brewer approached Spartan Race, De Sena doesn’t rule out accepting those dollars. “Depends on the terms,” he says.

Pfizer’s Advil, meanwhile, sees sponsoring Tough Mudder as a no-brainer. “Advil relieves tough pain. Event day puts stress on muscles, as does training, so it’s a really good fit for us and an organic partnership,” says Jody Cook, director of brand communications. This is the OTC remedy’s first year of sponsorship, which includes an eight-foot-high, branded obstacle wall and product sampling at a dozen events.

Despite the obvious value for a brand, the extreme nature of these events and the very real risks involved could spell trouble for a sponsor in the case of grievous injury or death. Two incidents that generated significant media attention are slated for trial this summer, at the height of mud-racing season. In April 2012, at an Original Mud Run in Fort Worth, Texas, 30-year-old Tony Weathers—by all accounts an elite, accomplished athlete—disappeared during a 150-foot swim across the Trinity River. The medical examiner ruled his death an accidental drowning. Weathers’ aunt filed a lawsuit, naming the organizers as plaintiffs. The trial is set to begin June 27. Meanwhile, Robert Fecteau, a veteran marathoner, last year filed a $30 million suit against the Filthy K Mud Run, alleging he became partially paralyzed after landing in a mud pit during a 2010 event in Richmond, Va. That trial begins July 15. (More recently, a participant drowned in a Tough Mudder event this past April, in what was ruled an accident.)

Marketers apparently accept the risks. “Brands need to stand for something and mean something for consumers,” says Advil’s Cook. Other brands Adweek spoke with concur, signaling that as long as organizers are seriously committed to safety, sponsors will be satisfied. What’s more, any negative publicity will impact the events themselves, they propose, not the sponsors—much like the NFL, not its advertisers, has come under fire for player injuries.

Besides, as Reebok’s Wittman points out, “More people die from heart disease and obesity than from being active.”

That said, would Reebok continue to support Spartan Race if a participant were to die and the story played out on CNN and Fox News—the brand’s logo appearing in every shot? “We stand behind our partners as long as it’s not foul play on their side or negligence,” Wittman says.

Adds Spartan’s De Sena: “To enjoy life, you’ve got to suffer every day. There’s certainly some danger here. I think sponsors can deal with the injury issue.”

That, and getting a little dirty.

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