Air Jordan: the Man, the Brand, the Shoes

Think back to 1985. Twenty-six years ago. Before people could stalk each other via the Internet – hell, before the Internet! A time *shudder* before the Old Spice man. Nike was still working its way to the top of its industry, as was Michael Jordan, as was Wieden+Kennedy. Over the next two-and-a-half decades the partnership between these three iconic names (the Jordan brand sprouted its own legs halfway through) would revolutionize the shoe, basketball and advertising games, with style and authority.

Remember when I asked you to think back to 1985? And that it is 26 years ago? Well, there are a total of 26 Air Jordan signature shoes. (According to my math, that is roughly one per year.) Earlier this month the latest edition, the Air Jordan 2011, was released. Miami Heat star, Dwyane Wade, has become the face of this year’s campaign, but never count out another MJ comeback. I will not recount every commercial over the years (there are more than 26), because frankly, they aren’t all worth it. However, there have been some damn good ones. Let us start with Mars Blackmon and the AJ III.

Mars enjoyed a substantial tenure as co-spokesman next to the shoe’s namesake. The character, played by Spike Lee, first appeared in Lee’s debut feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It, in 1986. A couple years later, Nike and W+K brought him back to ask the tough questions alongside MJ and the Air Jordan III. Mars stuck around through the AJ VI campaign, adding “It’s gotta be the shoes,” to the lexicon of youth culture. The chemistry between Lee and his main man, “Money,” was incredible with the latter playing straight-man to the former’s in-your-face, fly (but can’t fly), hoops fan. For all the fun they had together on the black-and-white screen, MJ still no problem killing Spike’s and the rest of Knicks fans’ hopes and dreams during his visits to Madison Square Garden.

As great as the writing and ideas were, it was MJ’s versatility – off the court – that allowed the creative teams to pursue a variety of approaches. The lighthearted spots with Mars had been a success. Following his first retirement, Number 23 (soon to be 45, briefly) took over the spotlight to poke fun at himself and his subsequent comeback. Humor returned again for the shoe’s most popular version, the XI, as Air Jordan proved worthy of his nickname by dunking on a 100-foot hoop. The following year showcased a more dramatic, awe-inspiring tone in the brand presentation.

The Air Jordan XII (watch at top) TV spot was momentous. It perfectly summed up the effect MJ’s game had on audiences. Just as people turn their complete focus to the man when he is on the court, the commercial did the same to me when I first saw it. Great ads have come before, but never had one captivated my attention, memory and sense of wonderment like the XII “Frozen Moment” did. To this day, it still holds its weight.

It was another nine years before the brand again reached the apex with the Air Jordan XXI (watch below). MJ had not appeared in the commercials since his comeback with the Wizards and just as in “Frozen Moment,” it was his on-court performances that took center stage. However this time, his presence was found in spirit, plus a couple seconds watching with pride from the sideline. An incredible musical score paced various young players reenacting MJ’s multitude of indelible basketball moments. Fans can easily recognize most, perhaps all, of the references. The tag line, “Let Your Game Speak,” fits perfectly with the absence of dialogue, simply following its own instructions.

Here’s a look at the moves that inspired it.

We’ve seen the brand marketing evolve as MJ, himself, has. Whether he stars in the flesh, in aural form or lends just his aura, expect the combination of MJ, W+K and Nike to produce mesmerizing work again and again.

Also noteworthy:

AJ XIII: As Brand Jordan became its own line under the Swoosh, MJ tried his hand as CEO.

Failure: Not sure which shoe this was for, as none are shown. Here, the man tells us what makes him so great (at least part of it). An example of great copy carrying the load.

AJ XX: Spike Lee returns, as himself, without Money to celebrate the 20th edition. More great copy.

Do you have a favorite?

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