How Michael Phelps Kept His Mazda Deal By Apologising, Only To China

Chris Fenton, former president of the China-based DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group, has written a book, Feeding The Dragon, looking at his career, getting American movies into Chinese markets, notably Looper and Iron Man 3I recently read it, can confirm it is quite the page-turner, and that there are so many nuggets to share. You can follow along with a few of the stories I'm sharing with this link. Now, obviously this is Chris Fenton's take on what happened and already I am getting pushback from some other folk. But I definitely think it's a version worth telling He represents a meeting with then-Marvel COO Tim Connors (now Blizzard President) and then-SVP & General Manager, Marvel Studios executive Benjamin
Hung, later CCO of DMG and currently Head of Content Strategy at Valence Media. And he brought up Michael Phelps' performance at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, and how the Chinese market took to him.

"Well, after that crazy run, he made only a handful of carefully selected endorsement deals. One of them was with DMG and our client, Mazda. Boom!" I explained. "China market only. Seven figures annually. A huge win for all parties. Everyone wanted that guy to endorse their brands."

"Definitely a super-hot commodity," Ben agreed. "Nice work!"

"China loved him!" I exclaimed. "At least at first."

"On the text was a grainy photo from a random website. Michael Phelps was smoking a bong. Almost a fakelooking photo. Below the photo, my colleague texted, 'do you think
we'll have an issue with this?'

"I responded, 'I hope not.'

"He responded, 'I hope not too!'

That was a photo as printed in the now-defunct News Of The World (but shared by its stablemate The Sun). And they did have an issue.

Daniel responded. "Our head of PR shot out an email saying, 'A photo just surfaced of Phelps taking hits off a bong. Today Show is putting together a last-minute piece on it and Matt Lauer
is doing a story in the morning for Weekend Today. Someone needs to go on the record about this.'"

"Holy shit!" Tim practically shouts. "Heart attack kind of stuff, right?"

"No kidding!" I said, taking a breath. "I got a call from our CEO. He was pissed and said that Mazda's China executives were in full meltdown mode."

How did they get icey again?

"We came up with a smart 'Own It and Apologize' strategy for Michael Phelps. No ducking. No excuses. Come clean," I explained. "We got his agent behind it, and then Michael agreed. We scripted the apology, and he read it on camera for all of China. Really owned it and spoke from the heart!"

"What exactly did he say?"

"The gist was more than an 'I did a bad thing, so please forgive me' type of apology. It was deeper than that. And he spoke directly to the Chinese people. Like he was there with them, one-on-one."

How Michael Phelps Kept His Mazda Deal By Apologising, Just To China
How Michael Phelps Kept His Mazda Deal By Apologising, Just To China

And here is that speech as Fenton represents it from the book.

To all my Chinese friends,

As many of you know, I've made a mistake that makes me feel very regretful. Recently, many Chinese friends who support me have written comforting and encouraging words online to me. I truly appreciate your sincerity and your caring. When I fell into this current trouble, your warmth and caring lifted me up. Due to your strong support and kind encouragement, I have strength. I promise I will change myself from this point on to the future, continue to train hard, and I will make you proud again. China is a great country; your culture is deep and powerful. I feel China's tolerance, forgiveness and warmth from the bottom of my heart. To the youth who are the same age as me: please learn a lesson from this. Be positive in life and do the right things. Thanks again for your support and encouragement. I look forward to returning to China again soon….

And here is a transcript from the actual video apology he made.

My Chinese friends,

As many of you know, I've recently engaged in behaviour that was regrettable and not what people have come to expect from me. The past few days have been tough for me but I have received support and encouragement online from so many Chinese friends. I will learn from these mistakes, train hard and make you proud again. To the young people of China, please learn from this lesson, be positive in life and do the right thing.  I've had so many great experiences in China over the past few years and have enjoyed learning about your culture and your history. The warmth and the forgiveness in the messages I have received for China have really lifted me over the past few days. Thanks again for your support and encouragement, I look forward to returning to China soon.

Either version compared to the apology released in the West, is certainly more thorough, if rather specific in its audience.

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment.I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

The video was criticized for only addressing Chinese fans and, as this Young Turks video shows, there was confusion as to why. Though they suspected it was an ad deal – how right they were.

Fenton explained what the apology achieved.

"And then for the ads, we brought him right back to the Water Cube where he won all his golds in 2008. The commercials resonated, and Mazda sold a boatload of cars! Absolutely killed it!"


"The whole episode and the way Phelps handled it played out super well! He garnered respect and sympathy. The mistake and his humbling apology brought a human quality to him. He became much more relatable," I responded. "Think about it for a second, the guy broke practically every Olympic record in 2008. He's physically a freak of nature. Heck, he's almost superhuman! Anyone, let alone any Chinese person, would be an idiot to sit on their couch and say, 'If only I trained more, I could've done what Phelps did.' That would be preposterous. Yet, after the famous bong incident, the Chinese felt like, 'That guy makes mistakes just like everyone else, and he owned it! He apologized. I feel for him. I like him because of his flaws. He's more like me than I thought.'"

"The Chinese rallied around him. He's now forever tied to China's history. And smartly, we were one of a few agencies influencing our brand client to stick with him through that terrible time. That was risky, but we had a clever plan, and it worked," Daniel added.

DMG would go onto use that goodwill to promote their Chinese co-production of the Looper movie as well, talking to Charles Newirth, an executive producer on Iron Man 3.

"Some of DMG's clients, like Mazda, will be involved with Looper too. We pitched them an idea they loved with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Phelps. An established artist and a world-class athlete go on a cultural tour to promote the film," I explained. "There is nothing better than mixing the universality of sports and culture! It's like 'Ping Pong Diplomacy' on steroids!"

"That's a cool idea," Charles said. "It's a feel-good play. It's super emotional. It excites the human instincts. It's aspirational."

"Yup! First, two days in Beijing. They attend Mazda's new model launch at the Beijing Auto Show. Then two days in London. Joe watches Phelps compete. Then three days in Shanghai so Phelps can watch Joe at the Chinese Looper premiere," I added.

 Feeding The Dragon by Chris Fenton, published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon & Schuster.

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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