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DIGO Brands the NFL

by Alan Schwarz
The New York Times
January 21st 2011

A mother worried “about my son playing football.” Two children colliding helmet-to-helmet — with superimposed crashing sounds and force lines rippling from their heads — drove home her fears.

Unveiled by Toyota in November, the television commercial highlighted the carmaker’s decision to share crash research with scientists studying football concussions, and was an explicit reminder of football’s recent controversies regarding concussions.

So explicit, it turns out, that the N.F.L demanded that Toyota alter the 30 second commercial, and Toyota promptly did. Now, the commercial — which originally ran last November but is now running in its edited form — has the mother worrying instead “about my son playing sports.” The helmet collision has been removed. A spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Zoe Ziegler, said in an interview that the changes were made at the N.F.L.’s insistence. If Toyota did not change the ad, she said, the league had threatened to curtail or end the carmaker’s ability to advertise during games.

Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the N.F.L., said: “We felt it was unfair to single out a particular sport. Concussions aren’t just a football issue.”The N.F.L. is correct that concussions are an issue in other sports. According to researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, high school football players report about 100,000 concussions per year. The second through ninth-ranked sports combined reach 110,000.

The demand was evidence of the N.F.L.’s delicate dance regarding head injuries as well as its power to shape its public image. The league has responded to well-publicized links between football and brain damage by producing a public service announcement about concussions, fining players for helmet-to-helmet hits and pushing for changes to state laws covering youth sports. At the same time, its business depends on people watching the sport and approving of their children playing it. Toyota is not an official sponsor of the N.F.L., but it advertises with individual teams and buys commercial time on network game broadcasts.

Advertising executives described the N.F.L.’s action, reported by Reuters as extraordinarily unusual. The ad was produced and subsequently edited by the Saatchi & Saatchi agency. “It’s not unheard for a spot to be changed after launch, but it’s usually after a portion of the public takes offense to something in it,” said Mark DiMassimo, chief creative officer for DIGO, a New York-based advertising agency. To read more click here.