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Freestyle may describe a particular type of competition in this year's Winter Olympics, but it more aptly defines the attitudes, mindset, and personalities of the Games' most controversial, and therefore media-savvy, athletes.

Bode Miller got the party started with the American mainstream media more than a month ago when he commented during a "60 Minutes" interview about skiing competitively under the influence of alcohol. Now (despite the less-than-stellar performance at the Games) he's a household name and has just signed a lucrative, multiyear contract with Nike.

An even lesser known Olympic athlete—figure skater Johnny Weir—is fast becoming the sport's most well-known and eccentric personality because of his tendency to speak his mind. When describing music and costumes, he uses phrases like a "Care Bear on acid" and an "icicle on coke"; following one of the best performances of his life this week in Torino (Turin), he said in a press conference that his critics can "eat it" if they don't like the things he says or does.

While grabbing every medal, title, and coveted endorsement with ease if not grace, the Flying Tomato (aka Shaun White) unabashedly admits to hating to lift weights and work out; and the US Snowboarding Team's gold and silver medalists in the women's halfpipe blatantly try to get into trouble just prior to their podium-stealing one-two punch by taking a joy ride down an "off limits" section of the mountain.

Is all this just a product of the Echo-Boom Generation, or is it something more? Could it possibly be smart marketing?

You bet it is. Today's consumers are tired of playing it straight; they want to be liberated by disobedience. Across all age groups it's increasingly important to be seen as someone who is willing to defy convention, and marketers who get that are attaching their brands to things that deliberately go against the grain.

Jet Blue gets it. Its current ad campaign features free-for-the-taking sample permission slips, allowing us to shirk our responsibilities of work, parenting, and school in exchange for a vacation. What?! How dare we admit to preferring a week of golf over a week of work! It's a refreshing audacity that's being embraced by Americans of all ages.

Good marketing is often unpredictable, and that's never been more important than now. Bombarded with as many as 5,000 messages per day, consumer attention spans are fleeting. And with every new "mind blowing" special effect comes a little chip, chip, chipping away at society's ever dwindling sensitization.

So, we're left wanting more... or, rather, something different.

Brands that offer products not available to the mainstream, such as Coca-Cola's flashy new M5 bottles that are available only in clubs, or brands that appear a bit quirky like the Emerald Nuts campaign featuring a druid and machete enthusiasts, are appealing to today's consumers because they bring out the kid inside of us.

And it's not just the Baby Boomers who want to be young again. In October 2005, "O" magazine reported a study that tracked the number of recent articles claiming how different age groups perceive themselves. Here's what they found:

  • 30 is the new 20: 97 articles
  • 40 is the new 20: 38 articles
  • 40 is the new 30: 208 articles
  • 50 is the new 30: 105 articles
  • 50 is the new 40: 142 articles
  • 60 is the new 40: 53 articles

Forty is the new 20? If that doesn't tell you Americans want to fight the restraints of age, nothing will.

But are athletes intentionally breaking unwritten rules to make themselves attractive to sponsors? When you read about splinter groups of athletes who break away from the U.S. Olympic team as a way to earn more endorsement money, you have to believe they're not flying by the seat of their pants when it comes to marketing prowess.

They are the world's best athletes who are paid handsomely to represent some of the most recognized and valuable brands on planet Earth... brands that got that way by working hard; taking smart, calculated risks; and making absolutely certain their investments paid off.

Big brands are run by people who are constantly in search of the people, things, and ideas that will make consumers demand their products. So, in today's marketplace, where quirky counts and money is manna, you can't help but think there's someone standing right alongside Bode Miller at the starting gate whispering instructions on what to say to the cameraman at the bottom of the slope when all he's really trying to do is figure out how he's going to stay alive while screaming 976 mph down a frozen banana peel.

It conjures up images of the creepy Slugworth in Willy Wonka who offers every golden ticket winner a boatload of money if they'll steal one of the new Everlasting Gobstoppers so he can analyze the formula.

No, I don't believe that today's Olympic athletes are being intentional, or are over-inflating, their behavior. Nor do I believe that the companies that endorse them are telling them how to act or what to say. They are simply charismatic individuals who are making their mark with their specific brand of talent and gifts.

The smart marketers who associate their brands with them want nothing more from them than that... until, of course, the next fresh, trash-talking rule-breaker comes along.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kara Dullea is vice-president of public relations at the bounce agency (thebounceagency.com).