Ad Report Card

The Second Coming

Nike’s new ad is a humble prayer that LeBron will turn out like Mike.

Nike’s latest spot makes James the new basketball messiah

Spot:“Book of Dimes.” (Click here to see the ad.)

Product: LeBron James and his ancillary salable goods.

Synopsis: The setting is a weird amalgam of church and gymnasium. Comedian Bernie Mac is our preacher, dressed in a black Nike sweat suit. Behind him sways a huge choir, also in Nike sweats. Reading from the “King James playbook,” Preacher Mac praises the Chosen One who has been blessed with “court vision.” The church/gym doors blow open, and NBA phenom LeBron James—the Chosen One himself—appears in the aisle, holding a basketball. He starts to chuck no-look passes all over the church. Those who catch these passes are touched by his glory, which somehow enables crazy aerial dunks. The choir sings. Cue the Swoosh logo. Amen.

Analysis: Making a mockery of the black church tradition … check. Equating a teenage athlete with Jesus Christ … check. But that’s not the point here. The point is: This is LeBron, people! This is Nike, history’s greatest marketing juggernaut, crafting a whole new icon before your eyes! Now, get on board!

Here’s what grabs me about this ad:

The attention to detail. Nobody makes better ads than Nike (and their ad firm Wieden and Kennedy). This isn’t an all-time great Nike ad, but you have to love the details. The way the preacher asks, “Can I get a lay-up?” and the congregation shouts, “Lay up!” The way the choir is all WNBA players. The way basketball legends Dr. J and Jerry West are church elders, up on the dais in white sweat suits. And of course, the fact that all these people are unidentified, show up on screen for split seconds, and have barely any speaking lines between them. That’s a lot of money and effort just for the sake of authenticity, and it’s the sort of thing that separates the Swoosh from the herd. Also, Bernie Mac is a comic genius.

The packaging of LeBron. For years, analysts have talked about “street cred” as the key to a successful shoe endorsement. Gangsta-ish players like Allen Iverson (who shills for Reebok) sell lots of sneakers while goodie-goodie (OK, ex-goodie-goodie) Kobe Bryant’s Adidas line never seemed to take off. (Kobe has since signed with Nike—for far less than LeBron did—but hasn’t done much endorsing what with the all the rape allegations.) So, I’d wondered just how Nike would pitch LeBron, who has so far racked up a few minor ethical transgressions (e.g., accepting free stuff when he maybe shouldn’t have), but has mostly been seen as an overhyped kid who has yet to prove anything.

Turns out Nike’s gone clean-cut. They’ve got LeBron smiling, which is decidedly un-gangsta. And perhaps most interesting, this whole spot is about LeBron’s devotion to team, not about the jaw-dropping playground moves that often get used to sell sneakers. Preacher Mac says this Chosen One didn’t ask for “hops” (leaping ability) or “handle” (ball-handling skills), but instead asked the soul of the game for “crazy court vision,” so he could make his teammates better. (And in fact the most stunning part of LeBron’s game is his uncanny talent for finding the open man.) The title of this spot is “Book of Dimes,” as in “dropping a dime”—which is hoop lingo for a nice assist. As the ad fades, the choir sings, “Pass! Pass! Pass! Pass! Pass!” It’s a distinctive, almost humble image for LeBron—no high-flying dunks for him here—and it’s calculated for broad, crossover appeal. Not unlike the broad appeal of the last smiling, Nike mega-endorser. Which brings us to the subtext of the spot.

Michael Jordan inescapably haunts this ad. If LeBron is the second coming, he is second, of course, to MJ. Son to the basketball God. Casting LeBron as the messiah is, more than anything else I think, a glimpse into Nike’s own hopes and fears. They’re desperate for a new savior. Jordan will grow increasingly irrelevant to young sneaker-buyers, and no one else out there seems ready to take his place. (Maybe Kobe could have done it. When Nike signed him away from Adidas—which never found a winning image for him—I thought they might strike gold. But the trial has put the kibosh on all that.) Nike needs LeBron to be MJ, in terms of launching new shoes and representing the brand, and they’re praying he’s up to the task.

Grade: B+. This ad—in concert with the debut ad he made this fall just before his first NBA game—marks a solid initial foray for brand LeBron. (Just like this new ad, that first spot [click here, then click through to “Commercial 001” to see it] employed LeBron’s charming smile to good effect and kept him entirely mute. I eagerly await the first words Nike authorizes him to speak.)

But “Book of Dimes” isn’t on par with Nike’s best work. You know those Nike ads  where the music, choreography, and photography somehow capture the passion of sport in a nonverbal, gut-level way that brings a lump to your throat? Or maybe that’s only me. Either way, this ad is not one of them. It’s just a cute little image builder—well executed, but no great shakes. Seeing as how their bread-and-butter business—overpriced basketball sneakers—will rise and fall with LeBron for the next several years, and possibly decades, I’m looking for Nike to do better the next time out.