“The way female athletes are being used as endorsers negatively impacts their effectiveness and reduces wider opportunities for other female athletes," said researcher John Antil.
As part of the study, the researchers conducted nine focus groups, asking participants to react to ads and discuss their perceptions. Ads that focused on athletes' attractiveness often elicited negative responses from women.
The researchers point to the 2009 "Got Milk?" ad featuring Olympic swimmer Dara Torres in a skimpy bathing suit, which did not impress those in the focus groups.
"Respondents suggested this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family," Antil along with co-author Matthew Robinson, wrote in the study. "Featuring Dara Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might be more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness at age 40."
When sex appeal was highlighted, the research found that consumers responded negatively, especially when comparing themselves to the spokesperson. The studies' authors believe highlighting the similarities between the endorser and the targeted consumer could be a more effective strategy.
There were several other factors holding back women athletes as endorsers, including that many aren't well known among the general public.
Since familiarity, along with likability and similarity, is a hallmark of an effective spokesperson, not being well known is hindering the amount of work female athletes find in the advertising world.
Other than during the Olympics, the researchers said women athletes have very little opportunity for visibility, making the next few weeks as their sole opportunity to garner the public's attention.
Though the odds are against them, Antil and Robinson said a female showing performance, personality, and an interesting personal profile could become a new endorsement powerhouse.
The study is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Brand Strategy.