Is Any Publicity Good Publicity? Mack Horton vs Sun Yang’s Social Media War Has Left Sponsors Looming

Whether intentional or accidental, Hortons comments have made him an incredibly marketable athlete.
Published on Aug 16 2016 by Stefano Senese

Last week, young Aussie swimming sensation Mack Horton took home gold in the 400m freestyle in Rio, giving Australia their first gold medal of the tournament, and their first gold medal in such an event since Ian Thorpe in 2004. However, his exploits in the pool that night have been overshadowed heavily by the comments the 20 year old made regarding his opponent, Sun Yang of China. Horton, fresh off his medal winning victory publicly slammed Yang, calling his victory “a win for the good guys” and labelling his Chinese opponent a “drug cheat’, referring to Yang's three month suspension in 2014 for doping (albeit it being prescription heart medication). Since then, Hortons comments have exploded on social media, drawing notable criticism from thousands of chinese users, who have “trolled” Horton, calling his remarks towards Yang, unsportsmanlike and even racist.

However, In contrast, Horton's home ground fame has risen exponentially, as many Australian Facebook users have rallied behind their athletes comments, suggesting he was standing up for the sports nobility and stance against doping. There is no secret that Horton's popularity has skyrocketed since his comments, with his Facebook pages likes increasing by a staggering 97.7% in the past week. But who wins from this war of words? Mack Horton.

Whether intentional or accidental, Hortons comments have made him an incredibly marketable athlete. There is no doubt that the negative backlash he received online would have weighed on him slightly. He is 20, this is his first Olympic games, his ability to deal with the media and knowing what he should and shouldn't say is for now, foreign to him. Yes, there are undoubtedly a lot of people who have lost respect for the young Aussie for his brash comments. It wasn't sugar coated, he meant every word, and it was intended to hurt Sun Yang. Nobody likes a bully, but what is considered bullying, especially in this case, is apparently subjective.

Let's look at the other side of the coin here. Mack Horton, 20 years old, Australian Gold medalist, standing up for the sport he loves against doping, and isn't afraid to stand up for his beliefs in the face of his adversaries; poetic isn't it? That is a marketers dream. Sporting brands are always trying to jump on and sign the next young hot shot, because if they're not superstars now, they will be, and it'll cost these brands a lot more to poach these athletes in their prime than when they are entering the competitive field.

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If the world didn't know Mack Horton a week ago, they certainly know him now. People are inherently attracted to drama, and thanks to Mack’s comments, it's exactly what they've been given. I can assure you if people weren't watching the swimming religiously (which would be strange because well, it's the best) they would be now. Earlier last week, Sun Yang claimed he was king of the 1500m freestyle. Fast forward, and he didn't even make the final. Notably, Mack’s performance wasn't anything to rave about, but it still didn't stop the Australian once again sledging his Chinese colleague again, reminding everyone that at least “ he was in the final”.

There is an air of arrogance to Mack Horton, an arrogance that some may find infuriating or childish,  but sponsors love personality. Usain Bolt, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kobe Bryant, all at one time, the very best at their trade, drew criticism for being arrogant, but people remember them, and people don't stop remembering them. Every great marketing campaign comes and goes, but the beauty of young athletes for brands, notably sporting brands, is that their investment in these athletes is exactly that, an investment.

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Usain Bolt (above) has been lauded for his off field showmanship and cockiness as much as his sprinting ability. 

Do I think this was all some giant marketing ploy by Mack to get himself out there? No. I think Mack is just a guy, who definitely has a chip on his shoulder, but is passionate about the sport he has dedicated himself to his entire life. He just wants to be a voice against those abusing the nobility of the sport, but, in doing so, I believe Horton has instantly made himself a marketing gold mine. I don't know who is going to pick him up, but I can assure you, whoever does will reap the rewards.