Basketball sneaker commercials are a huge part of the NBA fan experience. While Michael Jordan was a superstar on the court, he became a global icon thanks to brilliant marketing campaigns behind his Air Jordan line. From “Banned” to “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes”, the ads introduced fans to a different side of MJ that was rarely seen.
Nike gave rising star Penny Hardaway an alter ego because of his quiet demeanor and he instantly became a fan favorite for kids. LeBron James is now the NBA's top sneaker seller and has many standout commercials throughout his career. Behind every great basketball sneaker is an incredible ad that tells the story of the athlete and the product.
The Crossover broke down some of the most iconic sneaker ads of all-time.
Nike didn’t need a soundtrack, a hype man like Mars Blackmon, or even a single word of dialogue to sell the Jordan XIs. Frankly, the iconic patent-leather sneakers didn’t even really need a commercial, as the distinct design and materials were an instant global hit that have continued to entice sneakerheads for more than two decades.
Even so, the nationally-televised ad that Nike cooked up—“100 foot hoop”—stands the test of time just like the sneaker. The spot opens with Michael Jordan alone in a dusty, spartan gym; the echo of a bouncing ball reverberates while the camera pans to reveal a hoop that extends 100 feet above the ground. As Jordan prepares for takeoff, his glistening sneakers appear bright against the dimly-lit background, like a futuristic rocket-booster as they fill the entire screen for a few seconds. That single close-up surely holds the record for generating the most “I need those” instant reactions from viewers.
And then it’s on: Jordan races for a Space Jam-style slam, his body swimming upwards towards the hoop. He completes the impossible dunk and hangs on the rim as the ball clatters to the ground. The spot closes with Jordan looking down to the court in trepidation before glancing to the camera with a cheeky “What do I do now?” look.
The ad distills all the major elements of Jordan’s legend: his work ethic, leaping ability, superhero game, Hollywood persona and, perhaps most importantly, his relatability. The glance at the end recalled his famous “Shrug” after hitting six threes against the Blazers in the 1992 Finals, a moment where Jordan briefly stepped outside his role as an athlete to become just another fan who couldn’t believe what he’d done.
Indeed, the glance tugs the viewer in a very “Be Like Mike” way. To anyone who has gotten cold feet on a high dive or momentarily panicked at the top of a rollercoaster, Jordan’s predicament and reaction was instantly recognizable. The XIs, then, weren’t just for GOATs capable of extraterrestrial dunks. They were for everybody who had the nerve to be daring.
Michael Jordan’s “Banned” commercial is perhaps the most important ad in the history of sneakers, but “It’s Gotta be the Shoes” is probably the most iconic. The spot, created by advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy and Nike, turned Jordan from NBA star to global icon. Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon character (originally from his film She’s Gotta Have It) is easily the best sneaker ad character of all-time. The series of commercials features Mars showcasing Air Jordan’s to viewers and wondering if the shoes are the reason behind MJ’s success.
The campaign helped add to Lee's standing as one of the most respected directors, while Jordan successfully cemented himself into pop culture.
Jordan’s became a status symbol and was seen on shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and in almost every rap video in the '90s. The commercials gave fans the chance to see another side of Jordan and his charismatic personality. Blend that with Spike’s comedic touch and a pair of sneakers that everyone wanted and you have the most iconic ad in sneaker history.
Honorable mention: LeBron – “Pressure”
LeBron’s first Nike commercial is damn near perfect. The ad gives fans an answer to just about everything they wondered about incoming phenom LeBron James, and if he would crack under pressure. LeBron makes it look so easy that people forget how much pressure he faced coming into the NBA. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, dubbed as the Chosen 1! He received a $90 million contract from Nike before playing a game in the NBA. We will never see an athlete go under the microscope like he did at such a young age and shatter every single expectation. The man is building schools now.
When I close my eyes and envision a sneaker commercial, there's only one image that emerges from my subconscious. Afroed LeBron James; early-2000s, quacky-businessman sunglasses on his face; freshly-pressed, all-white suit; whispering sweet-nothings on a flip phone while standing atop what appears to be a 40-foot high dive. "He won't get in the water," bearded, old-man LeBron chides. "He doesn't want to get his hair wet." Only then does business-man LeBron leap off the platform, complete the most absurd flip-and-twist dive ever recorded, whilst staring seductively into the camera. It's a hilarious spot. But what made the overall LeBrons commercial series so iconic: it completely captured every aspect of James, even as he peppered in self-deprecating jokes.
Old-man LeBron brought the flames. "You can't get through Detroit training in no pool!" It's aged even better now that we know James is a self-proclaimed, over-emotional AAU dad. Business LeBron was calm and collected, oozing swagger and success. He's what we've learned of James off the court, investing in billion-dollar companies and launching documentary after documentary. And I'd like to think the all-white suit is a playful jab at his hideous draft-night attire in 2003.
The athlete LeBron was invariably working out, only a precursor to learning James likely invests more capital on his body than any human alive. And then we had young LeBron, always looking for fun, headphones blaring, in-tune with pop culture. I'd like to think that character embodies how James has emerged as a staple of American culture, especially in this age of social media, and I'd imagine his children revere him on and off the floor just as the young LeBron seemed to gaze at his older namesakes. These commercials were riotously written and equally effective. It doesn't get any better than The LeBrons.
Jeremy Woo - Nike "Freestyle"
I don’t remember exactly when my younger, more impressionable self came to realize that basketball players epitomized cool, but this early '00s TV spot certainly didn’t hurt. What Nike got right here is that you don’t always need words to express yourself (or to sell sneakers, for that matter)—on and off the court, style suffices.
The minimalist vision of director Paul Hunter (who memorably directed the video for D’Angelo’s “Untitled”) and the recreated beat from Afrika Bambataa’s “Planet Rock” underscore the individual expression enabled by one simple presence: the ball itself. Beautifully conceived and edited, the clip doubles a who’s who of one of the more stylish, lovable eras of NBA basketball: White Chocolate, Baron, Lamar, Vinsanity...and of course, Sheed steals the show. (In retrospect, this is also watching Darius Miles peak in real time). This is poetry in motion, it’s unforgettable, and it will never be topped.
This is what all NBA commercials should include: A Mission: Impossible-esque stunt, a celebrity sidekick, and some incredibly on the nose yet oblique references to a star player’s rivals. Dwyane Wade’s "Dominate Another Day" series checked all the boxes. This commercial, released after LeBron signed with Miami in 2010, is probably my favorite. It starts with Wade, for no apparent reason, essentially skydiving into Miami only to then hop on a motorcycle before meeting up with Kevin Hart. (What was the budget for this???) You normally have to pay $16 bucks to see Tom Cruise do this kind of stuff in a movie theater. The series featured other memorable spots (especially this Goldfinger homage), but this one is my favorite because of the first line, “His Majesty is in good hands.”
Should I Be Who You Want Me To Be?, Nike, 2010
This commercial is so far ahead of its time. LeBron caught a lot of flak for this spot, when if he made the same exact thing today, he would be applauded widely for it. That’s how much has changed since James decided to join the Heat in 2010. I could talk about this commercial for hours, and maybe even longer if we want to start discussing some subsequent free-agent choices made by superstars in the last two years. Instead, just watch this commercial, and remember how right LeBron was to a) join the Heat and b) how many of your favorite writers showed their a--es by complaining about it.
Training Day, Nike, 2013
Look at that unburdened smile.
Love The Game, Jordan, 2011
The perfect lockout commercial. Stay for the end.
The Second Coming, Nike
The players were paid an extra $50k if they won the scrimmage to ensure some good footage would be captured for this spot. Shout out Juelz Santana.
Listen up, young ‘uns. Speaking as a teen product of the 90’s, nothing, and I mean NOTHING, exploded NBA pop culture as much as Lil’ Penny (Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway’s puppet alter ego—voiced by Chris Rock) and his Nike commercials. Debuting in 1995 shortly after Hardaway showed his acting skills in Blue Chips (one of the greatest sports movies ever made), L.P. was not only insanely funny, but thanks to him, the sneaker culture and Hardaway’s brand and marketing appeal sky rocketed.
There are plenty of great ads to choose from—including his rendezvous with the object of his affection,Tyra Banks ("Hey, Tyra, you forgot your toothbrush at my house!”) or the 1997 Super Bowl ad, which featured a '90s star–studded cast and names such as Tiger Woods, Barry Sanders, Michael Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr, Stevie Wonder, the aforementioned Tyra Banks, Jaleel White, Spike Lee and even Jonathan Lipnicki, the kid from Jerry Maguire.
But to me, the cream of the crop is the last ever campaign when they mimicked MJ’s "Frozen Moment" commercial. It’s a classic moment in TV history. Apparently, Jordan was not happy about the ad, but when you’re parodied by the greatest puppet ever created, you should take it as the ultimate compliment.