Ad Report Card

LeBron James, Thespian

The NBA star hams it up in Nike’s baffling new ads.

The Spot: In a series of ads titled “Meet the LeBrons,” we see four characters (all of them played by NBA star LeBron James) just hanging out together—eating dinner, listening to music, cracking wise, and so forth. At one point, they nosh on meatballs the size of grapefruits. Later, they all dance to the Rick James hit “Superfreak.” (To see the ads, click here, then click “The LeBrons” and “View the TV Spots.”)

These Nike ads are baffling. Nothing happens in them. There’s no explanation as to who these characters are, how they relate to each other, and what (if anything) they’re trying to sell. I eventually managed to suss out that the product in question is the newest LeBron James signature shoe. But only one of the four spots in this campaign deigns to show us the sneaker at all.

Of course, I’m at a disadvantage here. I’m in no way the target market for this product. “Marquee” basketball shoes (that’s the industry term for the category) are designed mostly for teenage boys. These are the people who will pay (or, rather, convince their parents to pay) $125 every time a hot new sneaker comes along.

Perhaps Nike’s demographers concluded that kids these days reject all but the most oblique marketing approaches. Still, why drop us into loose, unformed vignettes in which the dialogue is mumbled, the product is hidden, and the premise is completely surreal? Why are there four different LeBrons? Why are they living together as a family unit, cooking each other meals? Why do they inhabit some sort of split-level establishment with rough-hewn rock walls?

A bit of sneaker history: Nike long dominated the basketball category on the strength of its Air Jordan models. But Michael Jordan has been retired for years now, and his name is losing relevance with the younger generation of ballers. In 2003, Nike gave teenager LeBron James a $90 million shoe contract (before the high-school phenom had played a single NBA game) betting that LeBron could be Jordan’s heir—both on the court and at the Foot Locker cash register.

From the moment that contract was announced, I’ve followed Nike’s efforts to mold LeBron’s persona. I was curious. Would they get gangsta on us? (Allen Iverson sold a flurry of Reeboks on the strength of a thuggish rep and some badass tattoos.) Or would they swerve highbrow? (Kobe Bryant once made an Adidas ad in which he spoke fluent Italian.)

The debut LeBron ad chose neither path and instead tried to defuse our expectations. It showed LeBron stepping onto the court for his first NBA game and being greeted with nervous, paralyzed silence from the crowd. So much pressure and anticipation—could he handle it, or would he be crushed under its weight? The spot ends as LeBron smiles and simply dives into the flow of the game. It’s cute, but Nike was punting. LeBron had no lines in the spot, and the ultimate message for the viewer was: Relax, sit back, wait and see what this kid has to offer.

The next spot—which toyed, perhaps inappropriately, with the traditions of the African-American church—played up LeBron’s superior court vision and passing ability. Since your average NBA superstar shoe-endorser gets hyped as a highlight-reel dunker or point-scoring machine, this emphasis on the passing game was an unexpectedly humble tack. Nike’s image-construction gurus presented us with a selfless, team-oriented LeBron. Once more, though, the kid didn’t utter a single line. Comedian Bernie Mac gave the ad its flavor, and in truth was its star.

In last season’s “Chamber of Fear” campaign, LeBron entered a kung fu-style universe and battled enemies such as “Complacency,” “Self-doubt,” and “Haters.” Again, he was portrayed more as a hardworking teacher’s pet than as a thuggish bad boy. But the ads left me cold (and offended the Chinese government, to boot).

This “Meet the LeBrons” series seems like the first real effort to give the 21-year-old some personality. But it also says: Why stop at one personality when you can have four? According to the Web site, these characters are called Athlete LeBron (always in his b-ball uniform), Wise LeBron (with white hair and a beard), Kid LeBron (the goofy one wearing a sweat suit and headphones), and All Business LeBron (carefully groomed ‘fro, tailored suit, smooth-as-silk voice).

Rather than committing to a single image for LeBron, Nike throws out a smorgasbord and lets us pick our favorite. Are you an old-school type who hates flashiness and loves fundamentals? Wise LeBron is for you. Or perhaps you crave arrogance and bling: Meet All Business LeBron. Kid LeBron seems aimed at the less athletic, “lifestyle” segment (i.e., people who don’t ball but wear the shoes because they look cool). And Athlete LeBron is for the straight-ahead modern jock. It’s four image campaigns in one. And it covers all the bases.

Grade: B+. True, this is another punt. But it’s an entertaining punt. In playing multiple roles, LeBron joins a proud tradition: Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets; Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and other films; Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. Those other guys don’t have anything to fear, yet. Still, the ad works because James is game for the challenge and turns out to be a talented performer. Michael Jordan could never have pulled this off—he always looked awkward just delivering his lines, never mind attempting to act. I guess, in the end, we do get a glimmer of LeBron’s inner self: He’s a ham!