- Basketball is a visual medium that lends itself to commercials better than most sports. Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are among the players to own their own corner of the NBA's most iconic advertisements.
One of my favorite basketball memories dates back to 1997, when I watched Michael Jordan’s “Frozen Moment” commercial for the first time. The 30-second TV spot was a promotion for Jordan’s Air Jordan XII sneakers and I was mesmerized. The commercial displays Jordan gliding to the rim in slow motion as people from around the world stop their normal activities to watch him.
The commercial spoke volumes of how large of an athlete Jordan had become. It aired during the height of the Bulls' second three-peat and right after their then-record breaking 72-win season. There was no voice over in the commercial, just a musical number that will never leave your head. You can only see a close up of the sneaker for a brief second, and that was all we needed, because there wasn't much to sell on Jordan, the world already knew he was. With that reflection, we move on from one impactful moment and count down the most iconic basketball advertisements.
Air Jordan: “Banned”
The 1985 “Banned” commercial was the ad that ignited Jordan’s future billion dollar sneaker empire. The first Air Jordan 1 commercial “Not meant to fly” was great, but his brand reached new heights when the NBA decided to ban him from wearing them on the court. The NBA uniform policy required a player’s sneakers to match his uniform (the sneaker was missing white). With that, if Jordan continued to wear the sneakers he would be subjected to a $5,000 fine. Nike took full advantage of the opportunity, promoting the “banned” theme in a “revolutionary shoe” that Jordan can’t wear but you can. Brilliant!
Mars Blackmon: “It’s Gotta be the Shoes”
If Air Jordan’s “Banned” commercial was MJ’s coming out party, the Mars Blackmon commercials was Jordan’s “Thriller”. In 1988, advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy and Nike collaborated with film director Spike Lee in a series of iconic spots that stretched throughout Jordan’s career. The ads featured Lee’s Air Jordan loving character, Mars Blackmon, from his film “She’s Gotta Have it”.
The Mars Blackmon campaign was a major turning point in Nike’s advertising strategy and in sneaker culture. Fans had the opportunity to see a different side of Jordan. Infused with humor and pop culture, consumers gravitated to Jordan’s charismatic personality and Lee’s comedic touch. They both came off as relatable, and the two formed a relationship that sealed the deal on what has become one of the most iconic ads in history.
Gatorade: “Be Like Mike”
By the time Gatorade released “Be Like Mike,” Jordan had already ascended to global icon status. Who didn’t want to be like Mike? He had a great smile, made kids believe they can fly, a sense of humor, and after this campaign, his own theme song. Gatorade recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary and 23 years of the campaign with a remastered version of the commercial that was built for the social age with the #BeLikeMike hastag and cameos from today's stars. That is one way to continue a legacy.
Nike: “I am not a role model”
Never one to shy away from debate, Charles Barkley’s “I’m not a role model” ad sparked huge criticism around the country. Barkley’s message was that parents should be the main role models in their children's lives, not athletes.
Nike: “Lil Penny”
When Michael Jordan retired for the first time in 1993, the NBA was up for grabs. The league started to transition into a new era with new stars and better teams. One of those teams was the Orlando Magic, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. While Jordan eventually returned, Nike was already grooming Penny to be the heir to MJ’s sneaker legacy. Penny had it all when it came to talent on the court—he was a tall flashy point guard like Magic Johnson and possessed serious athleticism. But to get the best of his laid-back personality, Nike and Wieden + Kennedy tapped comedian Chris Rock to voice Penny’s alter ego and outspoken puppet, “Lil’ Penny”.
The commercials gained instant notoriety, and Penny became a superstar on and off the court. Following the “heir” theme, Nike poked fun at Jordan’s “Frozen Moment” commercial using Lil’ Penny and model Tyra Banks. Then the Swoosh plugged the Lil’ Penny campaign in a Super Bowl ad that starred other 90’s superstars such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Tiger Woods. The ads and Penny’s ascension probably contributed to the demise of his relationship with Shaq. The Magic's star center even went as far to release his own commercial with Reebok with a Lil’ Penny doll look alike. While Hardaway’s career was derailed by injuries, his commercials have had a lasting impact on his marketing legacy.
Adidas: “The Kobe II”
Adidas pegged Kobe Bryant as their Michael Jordan, a transcendent star who could take the brand to new heights. Was the adidas Kobe II sneakers a good looking shoe? Nope, not at all. But that didn’t stop the brand from earning respect after delivering one of the best commercials in Bryant’s career. The ad was fun and stirred debate on whether some of the dunks featured were real or not.
Coming straight out of high school, LeBron James faced an unbearable amount of pressure in his rookie season. He was deemed the “Chosen One” early in his high school career, and with all of the media attention, his NBA debut had become one of the most anticipated events in NBA history. After securing a reported $90 million deal with Nike, the brand used the pressure theme to depict his first NBA game. It is safe to say he more than lived up to the hype.
Reebok: A5 commercial feat. Jadakiss
After Michael Jordan, you can argue that no other NBA player has made more of a cultural impact on today's generation than Allen Iverson. He was beloved for his true-to-himself personality. Everyone needed braids, the tattoos and wanted to cross people up. He took the combination of hip-hop culture and basketball to new heights. It is a reason why his brand soared in the 2000’s, especially his Reebok ads.
Nike’s “Freestyle” basketball commercial is one of the most celebrated sports ads of all-time. The campaign featured NBA players Vince Carter, Darius Miles, Lamar Odom, Rasheed Wallace, Jason Williams and a crew of streetball players “freestyling” dribbling moves to recreate a hip-hop instrumental of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. After the commercial aired, everyone wanted to create their own version and many different spoofs were made.
Nike: “The LeBron’s”
Nike’s “The LeBron’s” ads displayed the four sides of LeBron’s personality through four characters.
Wise: His basketball knowledge.
Business LeBron: His business pedigree off the court.
Kid LeBron: A play on his young age at the time.
Athlete LeBron: The closest perception of him in the series.
The LeBron’s were fun ads, but they also brought to light some of the things LeBron wanted. Wise compares LeBron’s drive to what “Michael” what have done throughout the series. Fast-forward to 2016 and we have LeBron’s quote about chasing the “Ghost of Chicago.” Business LeBron is all about making the right deals, and the Cavs star recently secured a lifetime deal with Nike, which is reportedly worth a $1 billion. Kid LeBron depicted LeBron’s youthfulness at the time, and the fun he has playing the game. Meanwhile, athlete LeBron is on a mission to become better and win rings, and we saw that fun and drive when the Cavaliers won their first championship.
Before Kevin Durant became the NBA's most hated player, there was LeBron James. After the famed “Decision”, LeBron’s relationship with the city of Cleveland took a bit of a hit. LeBron and Nike created the “Rise” commercial, which depicts him questioning his move and wondering if he should follow what everyone else wants him to do. The city of Cleveland fired back with their own commercial about his decision to leave. LeBron's 2016 Cleveland commercial was received way better.
Pepsi: “Uncle Drew”
A message for brands: When it doubt, incognito ads are always great. Pepsi’s “Uncle Drew” campaign wasn't the first incognito character (Michael Jordan’s “Johnny Kilroy” and Larry Johnson’s “Grandmama” to name a few). Kyrie Irving's commercial brought back the nostalgic feel of those old commercials. The ad has garnered over 46 million views on YouTube since its release in 2012.
Nike: “The Conductor”
I'm not sure this deserves the iconic tag just yet because it just released a few months ago, but Kobe’s retirement spot with the Swoosh has close to over 7 million views on Youtube already.