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.
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)
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.
The "Le Brons" campaign ads: