NFL Linebackers Love Campbell’s, but Where Have All the Real Men Gone?

Cut to Clay Matthews with a digitally enlarged noggin

To get across the idea that soup is a hearty, wholesome, stick-to-your-ribs sort of food, you couldn’t do much better than hire a pro football player. As these ads show, the team at Campbell’s has the marketing play down perfectly—having devised it two generations ago with this 1969 ad showing the great defensive end Gerry Philbin chowing down on a cup of Vegetable Beef soup. Though it would appear, 45 years on, that Campbell’s is simply staying with a winning move by posing football star Clay Matthews with a bowl of Clam Chowder, something has definitely changed—and it’s not just the advent of Photoshop.

“Today, the marketing is more focused on the personality of the athlete versus the overall manliness Campbell’s used to be known for,” said veteran sports marketing consultant and Columbia University professor Joe Favorito. In 1969, just about any decent football player could have done the trick in this ad. “Now, you need celebrities—preferably ones with a big social media following—if you want to cut through the clutter,” Favorito said.

Which is sort of sad when you think about it. The beauty of the ad is its thematic honesty, the way it asks and answers its own question. How do you handle a hungry man? Feed him soup. Enough said. The fact that Philbin just so happened to be a ferocious pass-rusher—whose 19 sacks helped propel the New York Jets to the 1968 postseason and, with the passing of some guy named Namath, a Super Bowl victory—is not essential to understanding the ad. The connection between a battered lineman and hot soup requires no Q Score. “The slogan just jumps off the page,” as Favorito pointed out.

By contrast, the only thing that jumps off the page of the contemporary ad is Clay Matthews’ digitally enlarged noggin. While the ad still delivers the basic, time-tested message (hot soup = dude food), Campbell’s has made some thematic errors in its rush to deliver a famous face. “Clay Matthews broke his thumb and missed the last six weeks of the season,” Favorito said. “And he doesn’t play in either New York or Chicago.” Matthews does, in fact, play for the Green Bay Packers, a Midwestern team. Is that a natural fit with New England clam chowder?

Whatever. The point is that fans want celebrities, even in their linebackers—and that’s what Campbell’s is giving them with blond-haired gridiron god Matthews, whose domain includes over 658,000 Twitter followers and 522,000 Facebook fans. Fortunately for Campbell’s, it’s still not a stretch to believe that even NFL royalty eats soup on occasion. “Campbell’s owns this niche and it’s obviously been very successful,” Favorito said. “And if I’d built up all that equity over 40 years, it’s not like I’d want Progresso coming in and taking it.”