By Freddy Lopez
The Chosen One.
LeBron James had this moniker emblazoned on his back as a tattoo since high school. This nickname, however, bears down as a gift and a curse. There has never been a more highly hyped athlete in the history of sports.
But Magic Johnson made an interesting point recently on ESPN's NBA Countdown when he asked, "Why doesn’t James have more commercials?"
The short answer is that his mainstream partners decided to position their ads with him initially online. But those ads have given clues to how he would like be viewed and how the public perceives this polarizing figure.
And it's interesting to see how the messaging from LeBron has evolved. Consider these spots:
Nike's debut TV advertisement showcased the golden child in all his regalia and glory. King James couldn't have been marketed in a better light to commence his career:
He wasn't even midway through his rookie season, but the hype surrounding his arrival to the NBA only grew by the day. His selfless style of play was atypical in the superstar-driven, me-first and me-last league. Nike underscored this characteristic for a broader targeted appeal and deviation from basketball's individualized physical gifts. The late, great Bernie Mac played the preacher as he yelled to the heavens, "Oh, I feel the soul of the game comin’ over me!” This evangelical summons segues to James' entrance into the church and passed to anyone in sight; all of whom promptly possessed otherworldly hoops skills.
"Therefore, by showing him as some basketball savior, the Second Coming to the whole Nike family, the sneaker maker manages to embrace the hype while making fun of it. And Nike-ness is next to godliness in this case," said Adweek’s Barbara Lippert.
In January 2004, when "The Book of Dimes” ad aired, it was one month before YouTube's existence. Nike was just at a nascent stage of using an early form of digital media, the blog. "Art of Speed” represented its first online endeavor to tap into an “important and influential group,” per The New York Times. James' initial signature shoe, Nike Zoom Generation, would launch merely the beginning of the digital ad evolution.
Nike didn't let him say a single word in the campaign, but James' personality couldn’t be hidden from public consumption for too long. "The LeBrons" ads revealed all angles of his persona:
Athlete, Business, Kid and Wise comprised the characters in this series of Nike commercials. They each conveyed a side of LeBron that he exudes on a daily basis. By positioning them in this manner, they became easily identifiable and related to the consumer. The mythological nature of LeBron comes through perfectly in Wise's storytelling of himself. In essence, Nike remixed Bill Cosby's "Fat Albert" from the 1970s and packaged it into smaller, digestible segments -- Wise, in turn, would be appropriated as "Uncle Drew" in the future among other fictional endorsers by brands.
Due to the well-received reaction from "Pool," Nike decided to bring them back to distill, "the metaphor-personified representing the multi-dimensional NBA superstar LeBron James," according to its press release.
As his career progressed, Nike extended his exposure. James went from non-speaking savior, to a three-part campaign featuring four versions of himself, to a Jim Henson-esque Muppet. In 2009, they produced six-plus puppet spots where he would banter with Bryant:
Nike clearly made a strong push to market the game’s two best players throughout this season with the hopes they would finally face off in the NBA Finals. By portraying their respective attributes with puppets, they presented the public’s professed rivalry amongst them in a comical fashion. There were rumors then that they could not, or did not, get along well enough to agree to play off these roles in person. Whether that was true or not, fans wanted to see them compete against each other for the championship. This string of ads filtered the conversation further. As such, that year remained the only realistic chance such an encounter could ever materialize.
"This is about celebrating two of the game’s best players and giving fans a glimpse into their personalities, not only on the court, but away from the game," Nike spokesman, Kajuan Wilkins, told Rovell at the time.
And then it happened…
“The Decision” forever altered James’ status and adoration all across the globe. To the basketball Gods, this event was equivalent to the apocalypse. Outside of the O.J. Simpson trials, no athlete self-inflicted a worse publicity stunt to damage his brand than James’ infamous free agent choice. Despite 7.3 overnight ratings and topping a non-NFL telecast, the strategy deployed was ill-fated and poorly executed. Two days before this much-anticipated spectacle, James activated a Twitter account that eclipsed 150,000 followers in the first seven hours. The intended social implementation never even occurred, as both ESPN and James failed on the promise to answer fan-submitted questions via the hashtag, #LeBronDecision, during the live interview broadcast.
In a classic Nike approach, it had the audacity to counter the backlash. It, too, had to ask itself the same question ESPN did. "Rise" epitomized how Nike has historically responded decisively when one of its marquee pitchmen has been under fire, with examples like Bryant and Tiger Woods:
James aims the rhetorical question, "What should I do?" to all the haters. To deliver a resounding answer, the message needed to be directed at them. This was the only real first impression to describe his thoughts of that fateful night. What better way to attack them than by confronting the very moment where it all took place. Nike addressed every criticism people had of him over that summer. The reverse psychological nature impels the naysayers to think twice and take back their ill-suited beliefs. Thus, the in-your-face, unapologetic disposition declared his newfound attitude, albeit contrived to whom he’s always been.
"The real truth is that LeBron James is the victim of expectations. The only thing he fails to understand is that the expectations are entirely his own making," said Business Insider's Dashiell Bennett.
Still, fans reacted somewhat positively toward this ad. Nike uploaded it on YouTube and registered over 3.1 million views in the first week of its inception. According to Rovell, about nine out of ten people who posted the link of the ad on Twitter thought the concept was good. By this point, YouTube recorded 35 hours of video per minute. Taking into consideration the entire traffic of YouTube at the time, "Rise" was the most prominent sports commercial to ever launch in its history.
Despite many successes, James had to deal with a mountain of scorn after his defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals. It took him two years to realize that to conquer his inner demons, in addition to his critics, all James had to do was just be himself:
Samsung's ad spot for the Galaxy Note II marked a pivotal return to the rejoice in his life. James takes one through what a day in his life felt like after winning his first ring. Although it's not realistic that these various events would all take place in the same day, how James carried himself is. The interactions with his kids, children in the streets, and in the barbershop are believable. Humility is emphasized throughout the ad, especially on the license plate that read "EARNED 1." Samsung’s tagline, "The Next Big Thing is Here," could not have been endorsed at a better time. “His existing sponsoring partners will have much greater latitude on how they use and position the LeBron brand again, kind of an image reboot rather than a true redemption,” Robert Boland, Academic Chair of Sport Management at New York University told AdAge.
Boland’s remark nailed it, with respects to how James was immediately marketed after his first title. Nike took a more subtle position with their hit "The Ring Maker." Samsung’s ad took offinstantly and had half a million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours. Currently, they have garnered 1.3 million and over 40 million hits, respectively. These numbers coincide with the continued adoption of this platform via 60 hours of content a minute. Seemingly overnight fans, millennials specifically, have gravitated toward his side again.
The NBA rolled him out as the definitive face of the league for its playoff campaign this year with "We Are All Watching."
The title, in and of itself, almost directly connotes Nike’s old "We Are All Witnesses" billboard. Rather than implicitly attach James to a deity again, the league focused on the global reach and influence he has regained instead. Multiple countries and languages were well-represented. They are captivated by every step he takes leading up to his alley-oop against the Boston Celtics last year. The beauty about this spot is his game alone educes the effect he once had entering the league. The personal theatrics and hyperbole are virtually non-existent.
This commercial has only amassed just north of 255,000 views on the league's official YouTube channel, and, as TechCrunch reported YouTube has now reached 100 video uploads per minute. Although the league would not have to buy its own TV ad space, the opportunity cost to place this campaign on YouTube outweighs the $460,000 they asked advertisers to pay for last year’s Finals. As one might expect, James has a catalog of videos within this channel.
These six ads cover the spectrum of LeBron James' journey throughout his ten-year career. They provide a lens into what has transpired around his life, both personally and from society. For better and worse, he has lived through the digital age, and that will only persist for the foreseeable future. He still has ambitions to become the first billion-dollar athlete. However, it is the omnipresent number six, again, that he needs to accomplish before that lofty business goal has any chance of happening.
We are all watching …
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