Image: Daniel Wellington

Within 3 years of setting up shop in 2011, Daniel Wellington had sold 1 million watches. Since finding near-viral appeal for its $100 watches on Instagram thanks to partnerships with niche fashion industry figures, as well as mega-influencers like Kendall Jenner, the Swedish startup is looking to a lineup of big-name stars – from Juventus forward Paulo Dybala and model Hailey Bieber to Chinese singer Lay Zhang and American pro-football player Odell Beckham Jr. – to help boost brand awareness and sales, and maybe even elevate its affordable offerings a bit.

While Stockholm-based Daniel Wellington was busy teasing its new roster of “icon” ambassadors on social media, including one individual who looked a whole lot like professional football player Odell Beckham Jr., according to Wellington’s Instagram followers, an interesting thing was happening in the U.S. Upon making his debut with the Cleveland Browns on the first Sunday of the 2019-2020 NFL football season, Beckham almost immediately came under fire.

The former New York Giants wide receiver made headlines following the team’s September 8 game when he was name-checked by the National Football League for violating its rule that prohibits players from wearing “metal or other hard objects that project from [their] person or uniform” during games. 26-year old OBJ did not run afoul of the NFL’s rule by way of just any non-uniform object, though: during the game against the Tennessee Titans, he wore an orange-and-black Richard Mille RM 11-03 McLaren – a watch with a price tag of $200,000.

In reality, the rulebook scuffle was “a relatively simple thing,” Stephen Pulvirent wrote for watch website Hodkinee on the heels of the game. “The NFL was potentially going to fine OBJ, he said he’d accept the fine and continue wearing the watch, [which he noted] is made of plastic, [and] that was that.”

And that was that … until Beckham walked out onto the field ahead of the Browns’ September 15 game against the New York Jets wearing another watch. This time, it was a $2 million sapphire-based Richard Mille RM 56-01 (which was subsequently revealed to be fake, per Hodkinee). The extension of OBJ’s tour de force of game-day watches prompted interest from reporters, who asked him about the watch post-game. OBJ’s response to questions about his budding habit of wearing expensive watches during games? “I’m off of it … I don’t really have any comment about it.” He followed this up by also saying, “I think Daniel Wellington might be a better watch than these, a little classier, not as flashy as this one.”

Fast forward a few days, and while a rep for Richard Mille told the New York Times that OBJ is not paid to wear its watches, the football star was formally revealed as one of Daniel Wellington’s new brand ambassadors.

The Daniel Wellington-OBJ pairing has since raised eyebrows. “He wears $2 million watches on the field, though,” one Instagram commenter noted in light of the seemingly off-kilter partnership between the luxury-happy football star and a watch brand, whose most expensive offerings barely go above $200.

The news has also raised questions, particularly about the propriety (or the lack thereof) of OBJ’s televised endorsement, which appears to fly in the face of federal advertising guidelines, such as those set forth by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), which require that endorsements that result from a material connection between a brand and the endorser – that consumers would not expect – be clearly identified as marketing.

It seems unlikely that consumers would reasonably expect that OBJ – a famous athlete known for wearing wildly expensive timepieces – was being paid (either explicitly or implicitly as a result of his brand ambassador role) to hawk Daniel Wellington’s products, particularly since the Wellington shout out came before any formal reveal of OBJ as a Daniel Wellington ambassador.

As such, an FTC disclosure requirement is triggered, and it is safe to assume that both Daniel Wellington and OBJ had a legal duty to ensure that consumers understood at the time that they were watching the post-game interview that OBJ’s comment endorsing the DW brand – “I think Daniel Wellington might be a better watch than these,” etc. – was a marketing message. In other words, a disclosure was almost certainly needed. Something like, “I work with” or “I have a deal with Daniel Wellington now” likely would have sufficed.

But is the situation really as straightforward as that? Maybe not. After all, sports stars are well-known to openly rep brands – watch brands or otherwise – both during and after games. As the Times stated over the weekend, “Golf stars like Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie and Rory McIlroy regularly sport big-ticket watches by Rolex and Omega during tournaments” in furtherance of formal endorsement relationships. They are also often contractually obligated to wear certain brands’ shoes, hats, and polo shirts during matches and official outings.

“Tennis, too, is a sport where it has become routine to see Roger Federer flashing a glimmering Rolex each time he lifts a Grand Slam trophy. (Federer has long served as a brand ambassador for the luxury Swiss maker),” while Rafael Nadal has “transformed from global tennis star to walking billboard for Richard Mille,” wearing pricey watches by the company during games. Hell, Serena Williams – a Nike athlete – recently made the transition from Wimbledon 2016 to a Wheaties Box wearing a rose-gold Audemar Piguet Royal Oak Offshore; she has long been affiliated with the watch brand.

The same goes for soccer stars (albeit not during games, as jewelry is prohibited), auto racers, and the list goes on.

Interestingly, the established ties between sports stars of all kinds and luxury watch brands, in particular, likely do not give rise to an understanding amongst consumers that OBJ would be repping the equivalent of a mass-market watch company and thus, would not let Daniel Wellington and OBJ off the hook for the undisclosed endorsement. If anything, the longstanding pattern of luxury brands courting highly-paid superstar athletes, paired with Beckham’s own affinity for downright expensive timepieces, just might work against a likelihood that consumers would expect him to be endorsing a company like Daniel Wellington, thereby, creating an even greater need for a clear disclosure of the nature of the shout out.

Ultimately, while “it makes sense that brands use the wrists of famous athletes as a sales device,” according to the Times’ Alex Williams, marketing-centric messages that consumers might not otherwise expect are another matter entirely … even if they are effective.

A rep for Daniel Wellington was not immediately available for comment.