For the second time this year, Nike has put out a controversial ad in an effort to save the tainted legacy of one of their prime moneymakers. The first came earlier this year when Tiger Woods, fresh from the fallout of the uncovering of his extramarital affairs, stood in front of a camera in a silent black and white shot, while the voice of his now deceased father, Earl, admonished him. Anyone examining the power of advertising in the sports world can make a case study of this ad. The wealthiest, and perhaps most influential athlete in the world, standing there silently while a corporation that has been his prime benefactor uses the memory of his dead father to try and salvage his reputation.
Maybe that’s unfair, saying it like that. The ad, in its way, is kind of brilliant, showing in thirty seconds a formerly spotless individual confronted by the demons of his own making. From an artistic perspective, it isn’t half bad.
It was also far more clever, and seemingly vulnerable, than the “What Should I Do?” ad Nike is now putting out in an effort to rehab LeBron James’ battered reputation. The ad features one version of LeBron after another asking what he should do, practically daring people to continue the familiar criticisms of him while reminding them that he is his own man.
Right. He’s his own man who is letting the company with the most money behind him run a PR campaign to save his ass.
That’s what makes the following clip, made by a filmmaker out of Cleveland, so delicious. It’s a nice dose of contrary, low-tech reality in the face of a glitzy, showy advertisement meant to make us forget that LeBron James humiliated the fans who were loyal to him.
In the two weeks since the original ad came out, there have been a number of spoofs, including one on South Park. But this is the one that has the most punch. In a sense, the original ad was uglier and more vulgar than the Tiger Woods ad. Maybe the simplicity of the original makes it a little bit easier to swallow, whereas the over the top production of the LeBron ad makes it look more like another bout of self-aggrandizment.
I realize I’m using an advertisement to make a comparison between two athletes, but it’s something I find fascinating. Within a year, you’ve had the same company use ads to try and save the reputations of its two biggest stars, using completely different tactics for each. With Tiger, the ad is somber, stark, and carries the note of something that cannot be undone. With LeBron, the ad starts off with a certain amount of self-questioning, then quickly turns into a rebellious statement of his individuality.
The moment that seems to capture the backlash against both of them comes late in the Cleveland spoof of the LeBron ad, when a fan says, “We wanted you to be who you said you’d be.” And I think that’s why the anger will last longer.
Both Woods and James proved to be something far different than the image they projected. The difference is, Woods has been tangibly hurt by it, while James seems defiant and completely indifferent to any damage he has caused. Since the details of his extra-marital affairs came out, Tiger has lost his wife (they were divorced in August), no longer gets to see his kids every day, and has had to face the humiliation of revealing his most private acts to those he loves, and many more he doesn’t even know. The effect has been clear. He’s had his worst year on tour, not winning a single tournament in 2010, posting some of the worst results of his career, missing cuts (an extreme rarity), and frequently playing like a mid-tier golfer. Whatever else we want to say about Woods (and I’ll say plenty), the man was obviously damaged by his own actions.
Maybe that’s what makes LeBron so repellent to so many people now. It isn’t just the fact that he left. Or even the fact that he had his handlers concoct a one-hour special so he could kick Cleveland’s teeth in on national television. Or the fact that he was playing footsie with every big market franchise in the league for two years leading up to the day of his free-agency, which makes the whole thing seem pre-meditated. Nor is it the way he makes a point of showing that he and his teammates didn’t take the absolute maximum salary they could (which, of course, would have left Miami no room to hire any other decent players). It’s all of these things all coming together when we see this man with the world being handed to him do such incredible damage and walk away, seemingly unscathed. He can still flash his smile and talk about his “legacy.”
As one Cleveland fan put it in the city’s reply, “When things get difficult, you run. That’s your legacy.”