The LeBrons

Lebron_james_as_jpeg_1 Last night, the best thing on Monday Night Football was a basketball player. 

LeBron James is the basketball sensation who moved straight from high school to the NBA. 

When Mr. James decided to forgo a college education, the chattering classes took him to task.  You know, the usual: "Here’s a child trading away intellectual development for fame and fortune.  What is wrong with a culture in which this can happen!"

So when Mr. James showed up in a unusual campaign for Nike, the world was surprised.  Last night, for instance, we saw Mr. James play four characters.  In the space of 30 seconds, he was "Business," "Wise," "Kid," and an athlete very like the NBA player named LeBron James (see photo above and YouTube videos below). 

Whoa, Nelly.  The performance were not just better than the average b-ball celebrity endorsement.  It was interesting, daring, dramatic, almost, gasp, artistic! Clearly, the chattering classes had misjudged the kid.  Clearly, LeBron James has his wits about him.  Apparently, the chattering classes were wrong.  (And that never happens.)

To be sure, contemporary culture has moved well beyond the "dumb jock" endorsement.  Peyton Manning is doing ads that are funny and engaging.   ESPN does exemplary ads for itself, often roping in the athlete at hand. 

Some athletes have used ads  to escape the "spam in a can" status that is otherwise thrust upon them.  They treat the ad as an a meaning making opportunity, as when Maria Sharapova did a fiercely ironic "I feel pretty" spot for Nike, the better to fight the imputation that she was a really "pin up" girl who just happened to play championship tennis.   

But the LeBron ad is much better than any of these. And it comes from a kid who is 21 years old, working without the "benefit" of a college education.  Hmmm.  Chattering classes, wrong again.

The campaign is the work of a client called Nike, widely known for the courage of its marketing, and the agency called Weiden + Kennedy, widely known for the brilliance of its work.  But these are merely the necessary condition of the "LeBrons" campaign.   We do not have any thing like a sufficient explanation of this inspired piece of endorsement risk taking.

I have scoured the biographic info on line (as below) for illumination.   This work is detailed and well done (sports journalism has got better, too!).  But no one gives much insight into what Mr. James thinks he is doing. 

One possibility, and it is merely a possibility, is that Mr. James has found a way to reproduce the foursome with whom he came up.  Early on,  Mr. James took a "four musketeers" type oath with Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, and William McGee and all attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. The idea for the LeBrons might, just might, have sprung from this foursome. 

Another possibility:  Mr. James is famous for his team work.  Unlike many big stars, he actually passes the ball.  His passing game is, in fact, part of his genius as a player, demonstrating his Wayne Gretzky type ability to see exactly what the court is going to look before anyone else can.  Mr. James has no difficulty seeing himself as a member of a team.  And now the self has taken on a new diversity, the team work continues. 

There may be something Sharapova-like going on here.  The tag line for this campaign is "You think you know LeBron James, but you don’t."  Ah, did Mr. James feel himself painted into a corner by all the hype that surrounds is remarkable rise to the NBA?  Was this a way to take his leave of the identity being constructed for him for the sports journalists and the chattering classes? 

But why these characters, Business, Wise, and Kid?  "Business" is a creature so extraordinarily vain, he gets on the intercom during a commercial shoot to ask everyone  "please be quiet while I am dressing."  This is the gigantic ego that awaits every NBA star, and it may serve Mr. James to externalize Business early and publicly before internalizes Business.  "Wise" is an elderly creature and retired NBA all star, cranky, opinionated, and still in possession of a towering sky hook.  Wise is the most talkative of these characters, and it’s as if LeBron James wants to hear from this man, even as he wants to keep him in his place.  "Kid" is a child, a creature of simple pleasures.  And it is clear that LeBron James is living a life that absolutely extinguishes childish things.   Nice to take Kid with you while you go.

It is not impossible to imagine that Mr. James constructed the "LeBrons" in order to divide the labor of stardom and make more manageable the life of a NBA super star.   

We can imagine lots of sources of inspiration for this.  Mike Myer’s plays many parts in the Austin Powers series.  So does Eddie Murphy in the Klumps.  But the deeper inspiration may be a generational one.  Mr. James may be engaged in the "expansionary individualism" according to which all individuals claim many selves.  I understand that some will be surprised at this.  They will ask why an athlete so talented that he threatens to eclipse Kobe Bryant, perhaps even to rival Michael Jordan, would not find one self to be quite enough, and perhaps more than his share.   Well, no, finally, Mr. James is a child of his generation.  One self is interesting, and to be sure, the present self is mighty, but it can never be enough. 

Acknowledgments

Adam Roth, director for United States Advertising at Nike.  "We’re not afraid to try new things.  We focus on flying out on the bleeding edge."  (in Elliott)

References

Anonymous (a).  2006.  Lebron (sic!) James Returns in a Second Season of "The Lebrons" (sic!!) to Debut Zoom Lebron (sic!!!)  IV Shoe.  Nikebiz.com. Press release. here.

Anonymous.  n.d., LeBron James Biography.  Notable biographies. here.

Anonymous.  2006.  Maria Sharapova Dispels "Pretty Girl" Image in First Solo Nike Campaign.  Nike press release.  here.

Elliott, Stuart.  2006.  Nike Reaches Deeper Into New Media To Find Young Buyers.  New York Times.  October 31, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Peyton Manning: the man and the brand.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  December 12, 2005. here.

Stewart, Mark.  n.d., LeBron James Biography.  JockBio.Com. here.

YouTube:

The "Le Brons" campaign ads:

here.

here.

here.

7 thoughts on “The LeBrons”

  1. Well, that’s one great post, Grant.

    LeBron James has fascinated me since I first heard of him from my Ohio-residing college basketball obsessed daughter, who told me about him when he was a sophmore.

    Athletes develop poise in their sports over time. James had it in NBA doses when he stepped on the court for the first time. You don’t perform at that level in that context without having a significant storehouse of assets that go far beyond vertical leap. If anyone was ever ready to step from high school to the NBA, it was LeBron James.

    This kid’s smart and very together…so far. Resisting the amazingly forceful powers of fame early and often has undone plenty of talented young people. I don’t think that’s the case with James, but the pressures are demanding.

    I haven’t seen the ad yet…headed over to YouTube now.

  2. One danger of being an ads guru is overestimating their impact. We want the things we’re passionate about to be of great significance, even if they’re not.

    Come on —
    Lebron put on a few costumes. Turns out he’s also capable of varying his voice in a few ways. And wears or will wear at least four hats in life — does this make him unique among NBA players, or human beings? He’s a terrific ball player, but a million people could’ve starred in the same ads just as effectively.

    Courageous, brilliant, inspired? The world was surprised? Please. The world is worrying about other things. How about coming back to earth.

  3. Tom, thanks! Grant

    R.J. so how many high priced sports celebs have done this? Why so few? How many would do this? Why so few(er). How many could do this? He’s it. Best, Grant

  4. Great post. I wrote briefly about it but failed to get as deep as you have here. I–and many of my basketball-playing and -loving friends–are enamored with these new ads. They’re wonderfully complex, right down to the music choices, the art direction and the continued theme of four LeBrons.

    As to the meaning of having four LeBrons, I feel like you’re getting closest with the last analysis. These four characters are examples of the things that have an affect on his life, or could be seen as parts/facets of his identity. After all, he’s only 21, seems to have the game of someone MUCH older, is a dedicated athlete/teammate and seems to be a savvy businessman who is excited by his newfound riches.

    As far as RJ’s comments, I agree that there are certainly more important things in the world. But these are truly beautiful ads. Should we be unexcited by things that are interesting and well-made, just because there are more pressing issues at hand in the world? I’d say no to that.

    And I certainly don’t believe that many other athletes could have filled-in for Mr. James in these spots. The behind-the-scenes bits prove this point.

    After all, “Dunk contests are bourgeois.”

  5. When I first saw these commercials, I immediately identified each character as humorous takes on cultural stereotypes within the black community – the hip-hopped “baller,” the old-school “pops” and the ever-snappy “kid.” It’s as if these characters were ripped directly from a Boondocks comic strip, or as you mentioned, a Eddie Murphy movie.

    These characters and the act of one person playing multiple parts is a long standing tradition in black comedy and theatre. It’s the amount of humility shown by LeBron that is extraordinary given his fame & age and new in the realm of basketball advertising.

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