Going for the gold took on new dimensions at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles last summer. American contestants racked up one win after another, and almost as quickly announced they would be joining previous gold medal winners by signing lucrative contracts to endorse and publicize a wide array of products - everything from breakfast cereals and soda pop to high-powered sports cars.
It was not surprising to find the advertising industry closely observing as Mary Lou Retton and Steve Lundquist took to the airwaves with TV spots extolling the merits of Vidal Sassoon grooming and hair-care products. Miss Retton was the first American woman gymnast to take a gold medal. Mr. Lundquist, a native of Jonesboro, Ga., won his individual gold medal for the 100-meter breast stroke and contributed to the United States swimming team's gold.
These young and personable American competitors apparently make attractive representatives for the products they promote - especially when the market they are going after is made up of other teen-agers and young adults just like them.
But there's a larger question that the advertising community has not yet answered completely to its satisfaction: Can celebrity endorsements really sell products and move merchandise for advertisers?
It's no mere academic question when you consider that Retton's reported asking price for sponsoring a single product on a multi-year contract can run as high as $1 million - about double that of many other celebrity endorsers. It is generally conceded that any celebrity must increase sales by a huge factor to justify a big endorsement fee like this.
Laurence Taylor, senior vice-president of advertising and creative services for Vidal Sassoon, clearly feels Miss Retton's and Mr. Lundquist's endorsements are worth every penny. One TV spot featuring this winning pair and used after the games had ended was shot in pre-Olympic meets. ''We're airing it because it has a nice feeling,'' Mr. Taylor reports. ''This effort adds another layer to our already very visible promotional arena. We're aiming at giving groups of teen-agers a nice feeling about themselves whether they're celebrities or not. Of course we hope some of this will rub off on Vidal Sasson. It would be foolish to think otherwise.''
''The whole larger area of sports marketing is being developed in a very positive way because it works - and that includes sporting events as well as the individual winners,'' reports John Traetta, president of National Media/Highbar Productions. Mr. Traetta has signed Miss Retton on multi-year contracts to be a spokeswoman for McDonald's and Wheaties as well as Vidal Sassoon.
''Sometimes it works better than other times, as with all things,'' he continues. ''But there can be no question that the concept of celebrity endorsements is very valid.''
But among advertising pros, there is debate on just how much help celebrities can offer in burnishing a company's image and boosting its sales. David Ogilvy, that mighty mogul of Madison Avenue, states in his most recent book, ''Ogilvy on Advertising'' (Crown Publishing): ''Testimonials from celebrities get high recall scores, but I have stopped using them, because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product.''
Despite this warning, the agency that bears his name, Ogilvy & Mather, continues its use of celebrity endorsers. Take for example the highly successful ''Do you know me?'' campaign for American Express credit cards, which during the 10 years it has run has featured the likes of Jim Henson of the Muppets, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, and more recently Roger Miller, the country and western singer.
Bill Taylor, Ogilvy & Mather senior vice-president and the man who created the campaign a decade ago, told the Monitor recently: ''There is no doubt that today as yesterday, using celebrities in advertising still attracts attention and good recall scores. But the modern-day question is whether the public believes them anymore.''
John McEnroe, the winner of this year's US Open Tennis Match, is another sports champ who stands to earn as much from his endorsements of Nike shoes, Dunlop rackets, and sportswear by the Italian designer Tacchini as he does from his competing - or more.
''A sports figure will earn two or three times more off the court than on - but he's worth it,'' according to Frank Craighill, managing director of Advantage International, a marketing firm in Washington, D.C., that specializes in marketing athletes. Last summer, Advantage took over the handling of commercial interests for Mr. McEnroe.
''Mr. McEnroe is also exposing the products he endorses,'' Mr. Craighill says , ''and I feel quite confident that this enhances the recall in the consumer's mind and helps the public distinguish one product from another.''
In a television commercial for Bic disposable razors which features Mr. McEnroe, an off-camera voice asks him how he will spend the money he saves on these inexpensive shavers. Mr. McEnroe replies, ''On tennis lessons.''
But ''not all of it,'' Mr. Craighill chuckled.