In one television spot promoting the drink, D'Angelo hosts a mock talk show called "Being Frank" in which he asks Johnson, "Ben, when you run, do you Cheetah?" Johnson answers: "Absolutely. I Cheetah all the time." The studio audience's gasps quickly turn to laughs and applause when Johnson raises a can of Cheetah Power Surge.
"Now he can Cheetah and it's legal," D'Angelo says in an interview in which he asserts people need to move past Johnson's positive drug test, which was announced just days after soundly he beat his archrival, Carl Lewis, in the 100-meter sprint. "I felt Ben needed another shot at trying to get his life together. Ever since his Olympic situation, everybody abandoned him and ran for the hills."
The shame Johnson endured included being a pariah in his adopted country—Canadian media referred to as "Jamaican-born," a far cry from the "Canadian hero" tag used to describe him previously. Now it's finally time to let him get on with his life, D'Angelo says. "Ben's a very good guy. Enough already with what happened 18 years ago. The guy's got to make a living. Maybe he can have a little fun while he's doing it."
In a no-publicity-is-bad-publicity vein, D'Angelo claims he was never concerned about any negative repercussions—or irony, for that matter—from hiring Johnson to promote an all-natural energy drink.
"I knew we were going to get some backlash. I thought two things could happen—the product can become really popular and we'll get thousands of e-mails telling us how funny the ads are, or we'll get two or three guys who are upset because we used the athlete who shamed Canada," he says.
D'Angelo says life is "serious enough," so while pitching his product, he wants viewers to be entertained and have a quick chuckle—which also keeps them from reaching for the remote control while his ad is on. "There are a million stations out there. If you have something entertaining, viewers will stop. This commercial was watched. Everywhere I go, people stop and ask me if I Cheetah."
D'Angelo first contacted Johnson last December, and the former Olympian says he was eager to endorse the product—and was unconcerned about any negative reaction to the ads.
"The way I see it, there's a new drink called Cheetah, the cheetah is the fastest land animal, and I run like a cheetah," Johnson says. "I think it's funny. I don't see anything wrong with it. Some people might look at it another way but that's their perspective."
Johnson says he hopes the fact that he's participating in a humorous ad making light of arguably the biggest scandal in the history of Canadian sports, not to mention his subsequent personal freefall from grace, will appeal to consumers and help them turn the page.
"It's important [for people to say], 'Hey, this guy is a business guy now. He's trying to keep a low profile,' but sometimes I like to be back in the limelight," he says. Johnson has more than just Cheetah on his plate. He's currently doing some coaching and working on launching a line of sports clothing next spring.
D'Angelo is confident Cheetah is sufficiently different from other energy drinks on the market to carve out its own niche. It's caffeine-free and its main ingredients include ginseng and something called royal jelly—the purest part of the honey, he claims. "It's what the queen bee lives on. We're using a 2,000-year-old Chinese recipe."
There are three types of Cheetah in the D'Angelo stable, all with a "lemony-lime" taste: regular, diet, and a "high-octane" version with double the ginseng and royal jelly.
"Look at Red Bull," he notes. "It came out of nowhere to be the world leader in energy drinks. Now everybody is trying to take a piece of them. They do US$ 1 billion in business a year. The sky's the limit, that's why everybody is jumping into that market."
D'Angelo says Cheetah is doing "phenomenal" business thus far and is exceeding all expectations. "Our sales will be in the millions for its first year of existence."
D'Angelo Brands also produces beer, ice tea, apple juice, and other beverages. Cheetah currently represents a small part of its overall production, but that could change.
"If Cheetah keeps growing like it's currently growing, it could be the biggest part of our portfolio," he says. "Within a year, it could become a CDN$ 30 million (US$ 26.4 million) brand."
D'Angelo says although his company isn't a mom-and-pop shop by any stretch of the imagination—it spent CDN$ 11 million (US$ 9.7 million) on advertising last year—it still has to be creative when taking on multinational corporations in the energy drink game.
"I don't think anybody has made as big a splash launching a new brand as we have," he claims. "We had to do something different. We're not the size of Coca-Cola."
When sizing up speedy Canadians to endorse the drink, D'Angelo never considered hiring Johnson's successor in the sprint game, Donovan Bailey, who won gold in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
"Has Donovan Bailey broken any of Ben Johnson's records?" he asks rhetorically, knowing the two men's fastest times were 9.84 and 9.79 seconds, respectively. "That's why we picked Ben." (That the latter time has been stripped from the record books doesn't seem to matter to D'Angelo.)
Now age 44, Johnson is nearly two decades removed from his record-breaking days but he says he still has some explosive power left in his famous legs.
"I did an exhibition run where I did 60 meters in 6.75 seconds and 30 meters in 4.3 seconds," he says. "That's with no training. Not bad, eh?"
Not bad, indeed, for a man who has definitely come to grips with being a "Cheetah."