From QB to pitchman, what you see is what you get with Peyton Manning
NEW YORK — Peyton Manning has much to gain by winning Sunday's Super Bowl. He can cap off the greatest season any NFL quarterback has had. He can cement his place in history as one of the game's all-time greats. And he can match baby brother Eli at family reunions, each with a pair of gaudy rings.
What he probably can't win is more fans. Almost everyone already likes him.
"Well, I've read some things," his father, Archie, tells USA TODAY Sports, laughing. "I've Googled some things and read some choice comments from people."
Manning, 37, is the nation's top-ranked endorser among active NFL players, according to the Celebrity DBI, which tracks more than 3,000 celebrities and found that 86% of those surveyed are aware of him — and 90% of those like him.
Manning isn't just a quarterback. He's Peyton Inc. — a living, breathing conglomerate with a surgically repaired neck who makes $12 million annually in endorsements, according to Forbes, on top of his five-year, $96 million deal with the Denver Broncos. He is a pitchman for an array of products, including DirecTV, Papa John's, Gatorade and Buick.
Or, as satirist Stephen Colbert puts it: "Many of my commercial breaks will feature Peyton Manning eating or driving things."
"Some people can be critical of that; Peyton gets so many," says Archie, an NFL quarterback from 1971-84. "He does a decent job for people, because he gets invited by a lot of different people, a lot of different companies."
Jordan Schlachter knows why. The executive vice president/sports for The Marketing Arm, which polls weekly for its Celebrity DBI, calls Manning "one of the most popular, trustworthy, well-known celebrities in this country, and that's not just athletes. I'm not going to say everybody, but almost everybody likes him. You don't find a lot of Peyton Manning haters out there."
Marlene Morris Towns, teaching professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, says even casual NFL fans like her know Manning and like him.
"Peyton Manning is one of those players, personalities that I think really transcends football," Towns says. "He's become a figure in popular culture, aside from purely marketing."
He passed a pop-culture test years ago when hosting Saturday Night Live. NBC aired clips of the show Thursday in prime time, a reminder of the goofball sense of humor that makes him the sort of pitchman who can laugh at himself and make viewers laugh.
His name also came up in talk-show host David Letterman's monologue this week: "He had to stay out of football a year because he injured his neck. Nobody seemed to know when he was going to recover, ever play again. Could he run, could he pass, could he do anything? Could he shout Omaha? Nobody knew."
The joke depends on viewers knowing that Manning shouted Omaha at the line of scrimmage 75 times in his last two games. When USA TODAY Sports asked, Manning didn't dismiss the idea of endorsing Omaha Steaks — and the beef company wants to talk about it after the Super Bowl.
At the circus of media day, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel acted as a fake reporter for NFL sponsor Head & Shoulders, asking players if hair would be a factor Sunday.
"It's always a factor in my opinion," Manning deadpanned. "Everybody keeps talking about the weather, but I think hair is probably the key component, and probably not enough people are talking about it."
That's Manning: funny on cue and good corporate salesman. In a similar incident, actor Hank Azaria appeared on behalf of the league's network and asked: "Are you aware that Bud Light is the official beer of sorority girls and overweight dads?"
Manning played right along: "I didn't realize that. I know it's the official beer of the Manning household growing up."
He also knows it's the official beer of the NFL, and he said it was part of the postgame ritual when Archie played for the New Orleans Saints. "My dad enjoyed a good, cold Bud Light during many a Sunday night after Saints games," Manning said. "He often needed a couple to kind of get him through the pounding he just went through. So I guess my dad has taught me a number of things, and one of them is Bud Light is probably the preferred beer choice in our family."
Manning's place in the first family of football is part of his appeal. Remember, for instance, the SportsCenter ad some years back when Archie and Olivia Manning are getting a tour of ESPN with their sons and Eli gives Peyton a wet finger in the ear and Peyton playfully kicks Eli in the rear as Archie stares them down.
More recently Manning stars with Eli in a music-video-style spoof for DirecTV — "Football on the phone," they croon — that includes a cameo for Archie. How about a sequel?
"I don't know about that," Archie says. "That thing got a lot of hits. But I told them that wasn't my best moment. We sure did have fun. I love doing things with my kids."
Schlachter doesn't worry about Manning saturation.
"I don't think so, because he comes off as very genuine," Schlachter says. "In Papa John's ads he comes off as just another pizza-eating guy who likes to throw the football around. It's only when it feels phony that it comes off as overexposed."
TV Manning and QB Manning are no different, says Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
"The guy that you see on TV is Peyton," he says. "That's just him. That's the good thing. I'm pretty sure it makes it easier for him to do commercials and things like that because he's being himself."
YOU GET WHAT YOU SEE
Towns says fans love a comeback story, and Manning's return from four surgical neck procedures to record-breaker is an irresistible one. Schlachter says that because Manning has won just one Super Bowl despite so many great regular seasons that many fans outside of Seattle are rooting for him.
A win Sunday means Manning can chow down on Wheaties, yet another endorsement, every morning until training camp, and no one will dare call it the breakfast of division champions.
"He's not just well-known and well-liked and well-respected," Towns says of why companies call. "He's relatively safe. You get a sense of him as a real guy. Married, father of twins, philanthropist, Christian. But he doesn't wear it on his sleeve, so it doesn't overshadow his performance."
Broncos tight end Julius Thomas thinks he knows the secret of Manning's success.
"I think the commercials let people see a little bit how we see him," Thomas says. "Because he's funny. He's laughing. He's making jokes, and that's how he is around us. He's just a regular guy."
That's just the sort of praise that's music to Archie's ears.
"You often hear Peyton talking about someone else being a good teammate," Archie says. "I think Peyton takes pride in being a good teammate. But that means doing things right. For a quarterback, there's a lot of responsibility there. He tries to go about things the right way.
"You know, he's not perfect. There are hiccups along the way. But that's life. All in all, I think he tries to do the right thing."
Contributing: Jim Corbett and Gary Mihoces.