It’s Gotta Be The Views: Sports’ Best Ad Campaigns
From Mean Joe Greene’s Coke commercial to Michael Jordan’s Gatorade, ad-makers have had a thirst for using famous athletes
Joe Greene – Coca-Cola
It is arguably the most iconic of all sports-themed endorsement commercials, in terms of story-telling and imagery. While virtually all post-Jordan ad campaigns have had a humorous vibe – Charles Barkley’s “role model” ad a rare exception – this ad for Coca-Cola had a simple, dramatic story that went straight for the heart, rather than the funny bone.
At the time of its release, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense had emerged as the most intimidating group in the NFL, and “Mean” Joe Greene was considered it’s ferocious leader. It was with that backdrop that Coke posited a scene where the menacing Greene, injured and removed from the game, stalks down a stadium runway, where a young boy offers him his Coke. Greene drinks it, then tosses the boy his game-worn jersey – “Hey kid, catch!” – while a catchy Coke jingle plays.
The ad, which debuted in October, 1979, but was famously played during Super Bowl XIV – featuring Greene’s Steelers – became an instant pop-culture icon, dissected for its social significance of a black athlete interacting with a while child, as well as copied and parodied – even by Greene himself – over the next 38 years. We may not all had a Coke, but this ad gave America a smile.
O.J. Simpson – Hertz
Yes, we know. For almost a quarter-century now, the name O.J. Simpson has been pure poison: Synonymous with grisly murders, domestic violence, Vegas jail time, pathological deceit, a compromised criminal justice system, and perhaps most of all, low-speed car chases. But there was the O.J. before O.J., and that guy, especially in the 1970s, was an American sports icon and hero on the same level as a Jordan, Montana or a LeBron. Simpson rushed for 2,000 yards (in a 14-game season!) in 1973, and became the darling of Madison Ave.
Nowhere was Simpson’s popularity and cache more on display than at the ticket counters of America’s airports, where as the pitchman for Hertz Rent-A-Car, Simpson heroically ran through the concourses and vaulted luggage on the way to his sweet 70s rented ride. The Simpson-Hertz campaign, which began in 1975, ushered in the modern era of athlete endorsements, and black athletes, in particular.
Simpson earned $600,000 for a three-year commitment to Hertz, which, according to AdAge.com, saw its brand recall jump more than 40% and favorability among consumers spike by 35%. After the first year of the OJ campaign, Hertz’s net profits increased 50% to $42.2 million. Simpson’s star turn helped him land roles in such movies as Capricorn One and, of course, the Naked Gun movies. OJ would even return to the Hertz team along with Arnold Palmer for a new campaign. But that all ended on June 14, 1994.
Bud Bowl – Budweiser
We look back across the long lens of history and shake our heads at what was once considered cutting edge technology. NASA bragged in the 1960s about computers small enough to fit into a single room. Cellphones were once the size of walkie-talkies. What’s a walkie-talkie? Exactly. And so it was with sports commercials. Always looking for that big new thing, Budweiser went next level in 1989 with the “Bud Bowl.”
Today, if you animation in a sports ad, you’re putting Bo Jackon in a KIA and driving him through a game of Techmo Bowl, or you’re using full-body makeup to age Kyrie Irving 40 years and turn him into a playground old-timer legend. But back in the late 1980s, it was the kind of stop-action animation — that even a high-schooler with a laptop today could probably outproduce with a little effort – that totally killed.
The Bud Bowl was a huge hit with fans, the ads pitting a team of Bud long-neck beer bottles and against their Bud Light counterparts, with actual announcer voices supplied by the likes of Bob Costas, Chris Berman and Keith Jackson. The ads first ran during Super Bowl XXIII, with Budweiser defeating Bud Light on a last-second kick.
That proved to be the first of eight editions of the Bud Bowl, which featured such homages to the game as a 40oz Bud bottle, a la William “Refrigerator” Perry, and a wild end to one game in the mode of the 1982 Stanford-Cal ending. The ad campaign also had an interactive component, where consumers could acquire game pieces and win prizes. And, of course, there was the unauthorized participation. Millions of dollars were actually wagered on the outcome of the animated “games.”
Phil Rizzuto – Money Store
This one is more for those who spent their formative years in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut). Way back before subprime home equity loans almost destroyed the world in the financial crisis of 2008, they were a pretty popular thing, so much so that a lending firm out of New Jersey audaciously called “The Money Store,” began running ads for its services in the 1970s. And the pitchman they selected was none other than Yankees legend and TV broadcaster, Phil Rizzuto.
Rizzuto was the lovable shortstop during the great Yankees dynasty of the 1950s and ‘60s who remained a beloved pinstriper in his post-playing career as one of the Yankees’ TV broadcaster, with his famous catchphrase, “Holy Cow!” The Scooter used the line at the start of his pitches for the Money Store, which usually featured Rizzuto behind a desk, like a throwback Jim Cramer, or outside a Money Store location. For kids of the era, the idea that there was a store where you could apparently buy money was the stuff of legend. So, too, was the Scooter.
Bob Uecker/John Madden/Yogi Berra – Miller Lite
Sometimes for an athlete, it’s the career after the career that we remember most fondly. There was literally nothing spectacular about Bob Uecker’s baseball career – he was a .200 hitter who never played more than 80 games in a season over his six years with four different teams as a back-up catcher – but that was the whole point. Uecker re-invented himself as a broadcaster and a comedian whose self-deprecating humor made him a regular guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Those 100 appearances made Uecker something of a pop culture icon, and his persona soon made him a commercial legend.
Miller Lite had already created a wildly successful TV and print campaign featuring retired athletes, comedians and other pop culture heroes like mystery writer Mickey Spillane in humorous spots. It was these slapstick ads that help catapult a former NFL coach named John Madden into the public consciousness. Madden had recently retired as the wildly-excitable head coach of the Oakland Raiders – where he won a Super Bowl in 1977 – when Miller Lite cast him to just be himself. And, boom!, Madden delivered.
Madden’s ad featured the coach in a bar extolling the virtues of Miller’s low-calorie brew, becoming increasingly agitated and excitable as the ad progresses. As he did on the sidelines for the Raiders, Madden is soon pacing back and forth, swinging his arms wildly and yelling to make his point. Finally, the shot goes the frame of the beer bottle and the slogan “Everything you always wanted in a beer … and less,” when suddenly Madden bursts through the posterized image to continue his pleading.
The Madden ad was comedy gold, and it certainly got the attention of the brass at CBS Sports, who paired the effusive coach with Pat Summerall for the broadcast of Super Bowl XVI in 1982, and a broadcasting legend was born. But Madden was not the only former sports figure to see his career pivot off his appearance in a Miller Lite commercial. Uecker was about to out-perform Madden in his 1984 star turn, and his career would never be the same.
Uecker’s shtick of portraying himself as a baseball legend in his mind, despite being a journeyman failure in real life, played perfectly into Miller’s ad storyline. The ad would feature a self-aggrandizing Uecker attending a Major League game, sitting in the primo box seats – befitting someone of his stature, of course – and talking about the greatness of Miller Lite. Suddenly, an usher asks Uecker to move, he’s in the wrong seats. “Oh, I must be in the FRONT ROWWWWW,” Uecker crows.
After a brief interlude describing the beer, the ad returns to the game, and Uecker is in his new seat, all right. He’s in the very last row of the highest nosebleed section. “HE MISSED THE TAG!” Uecker shouts down from up on high. The ad became one of the most popular in the series, and it wouldn’t be long until Hollywood saw fit to give Uecker more than just 30 seconds. He would go on to star in the sitcom, “Mr. Belvedere,” and eventually landed his signature role as the radio play-by-play voice of the Cleveland Indians in the “Major League,” movies. “Juuuuuuust a bit outside!”
There was another career launched by a Miller Lite ad in the 1980s, but it was not that of a former player. Rather, it was a young actor in a supporting role who would soon became a sitcom icon. In a 1987 ad featuring Yogi Berra and his many malapropisms, one of the many perplexed onlookers in the background, in the brown jacket, is none other than Jason Alexander, who would soon become part of the Yankees family as assistant to the GM – as “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza.
Michael Jordan/Larry Bird – McDonald’s
Michael Jordan didn’t always do the lifting by himself. He had Mars Blackmon, and he had Bugs Bunny. But when McDonald’s became yet another of Jordan’s marketing conquests in 1993, Jordan reached back to one of his first great rivals and teamed with Larry Bird to create another iconic spot.
Jordan had won his greatest duel against Bird’s Celtics back in 1986, when he dropped a playoff-record 63 points in an overtime loss at Boston Garden. But Bird’s career was soon on an injury-ravaged decline, and Jordan’s main foes became the “Bad Boy” Pistons. But that group was simply not marketable, and after Jordan and Bird teamed together on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team and Bird announced his retirement from the NBA, the two reunited for a simple game of H-O-R-S-E.
“No Dunking,” Bird demands at the beginning of the lighthearted ad, with the two superstars trying to best each other with trick shots in order to claim the big prize: A McDonald’s burger meal. Soon, the two are in the stands, or across the street, making every shot with ease, and “Nothin’ but net,” became the catch-phrase.
How competitive were the actual shoots? Jim Ferguson, one of the ad creators, relayed a story to New England Sports Network in 2010: “When the two of them are in the stands and Larry challenges Michael, Larry was actually trying to figure out if he could really make it off the scoreboard.”
Larry Bird/Magic Johnson – Converse
Their rivalry defined the 1980s in the NBA and is credited with not just saving the fledgling league, but launching it to a level of popularity it had never known before. The Lakers and Celtics met in the Finals three times in a span of four seasons between 1984-87, with Magic’s Lakers taking two after Bird led the Celtics to the title in 1984. Bird and Magic accounted for all four league MVPs in that four-year span.
But while the teams they played for – and the fan bases that rooted for them – could not have been more different, there was actually quite a bit that Bird and Magic had in common, although in 1985 the two stars were not aware of it, content to hating each other from opposite coasts. But one thing they did share was the same sneaker company. Both Bird and Magic represented Converse, which was actually the industry leader over Nike and Reebok in the early 1980s. Converse’s dominance, and Bird and Magic’s rivalry came together for an iconic TV spot that aired for the first time in early 1986 and transformed the relationship between the two stars forever.
The ad, for a new shoe line called “The Weapon,” called for Magic to arrive at Bird’s home, via glitzy Hollywood limo, in French Lick, Ind., where Bird is practicing his jumper in the backyard. “I heard Converse made a pair of Bird shoes for last year’s MVP,” shouts Magic as he emerges from the limo in full Lakers warmup gear. “Yep,” says the always-loquacious Bird. “Well, they made a pair of Magic shoes for this year’s MVP!” “OK, Magic, show me what you got!” And the 1-on-1 game is on. What no one knew at the time was the shoot for the ad – at Bird’s actual French Lick home – became a sports summit.
During the many breaks between filming, Bird and Magic hung out together and learned they actually had a lot in common – their upbringing, their values, their love of the game. By the time the ad finally aired, Bird and Magic had begun a mutual admiration society that would grow stronger as both players saw their careers end. Bird would equate Magic’s HIV announcement in 1991 to the shock of his own father’s suicide. Magic would put on a Celtics t-shirt at Bird’s retirement and tell the world, “There will never, ever, EVER be another Larry Bird.” It’s gotta be the shoes.
Bo Jackson – Nike/Kia
No athlete in the modern era came to embody multi-tasking quite like Bo Jackson. Jim Thorpe was arguably the first great multi-sport star. Jackie Robinson was just as skilled in basketball, football and track as he was in baseball. Jim Brown might have been better at lacrosse than football. But Bo took his two-sport career to new heights in the 1980s, dominating baseball with the Kansas City Royals, then putting on the pads and destroying defenses as a running back for the Raiders.
When Jackson wasn’t crushing moonshot homers or throwing out runners from incredible distances, he was plowing over the likes of Brian Bosworth at the goal line or running so hard down the sidelines that he disappeared into stadium tunnels. He was a freak of nature, and his diversity on the fields of play lent itself to an ad campaign that knew no bounds.
The “Bo Knows” ad, to the music of, naturally, Bo Diddley, shows our hero “Cross training,” playing baseball, football, basketball, tennis, hockey and weightlifting. “Bo knows baseball,” says the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson. “Bo knows football,” says Rams QB Jim Everett. [Yes, there was a time in our nation’s history where someone named Jim Everett was considered good and popular enough to be featured in a Nike ad. This is our national shame.]
After Bo’s two main sports – he’s shown in a Royals and Raiders uniform – the commercial truly gets fun. First, he’s seen on the basketball court, where Michael Jordan lets us know that “Bo knows basketball, too.” Then Bo is dressed nicely in white shorts on the tennis lawn. Now things are getting a little … incredulous. “Bo knows tennis?” John McEnroe asks. But when Bo is on the ice in an L.A. Kings uniform, Wayne Gretzky has seen enough. “No.” is all the Great One has to say.
But the final word goes to the music man. After “Bo knows weights” on Venice Beach, he is seen sawing the ax with Bo Diddley’s band. It doesn’t sound so good, and Bo tells Bo, “You don’t know Diddley!” The ad debuted during the 1989 All-Star Game, a fortuitous moment, as Bo, who knew baseball, crushed a 450-foot homer in the first inning, before the ad ran for the first time. But Jackson’s sports exploits ended 18 months later after a serious hip injury during a Raiders playoff game.
The career of the great Bo Jackson might have ended prematurely, but the legend never died, and Bo found out he knew retro in 2016. The vehicle for Bo’s advertising comeback was quite literally a car. Kia went full retro with its homage to one of the great byproducts of the Bo era: The Tecmo Bowl.
Considered among the most famous video games of all time, this Nintendo football game was a pre-cursor of the Madden series and was the first to use real NFL players’ names, thanks to a licensing deal with the NFL Players’ Association. And, without question, the most famous player in Tecmo Bowl was Bo Jackson. The makers of the game, which debuted in 1989, were so enamored by Jackson’s on-field exploits that they rigged the video-game Bo with superhuman powers, making him virtually unstoppable on the field.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Kia brings Bo Jackson back to the pixilated tundra of the Tecmo Bowl – with a twist. Jackson is still plowing through and weaving around hapless defenders, but this time, he’s doing it from behind the wheel of a Sorrento, which is played inside the game along with the original players and graphics. Even the stenciling of the ad is done Tecmo style. It’s a touchdown. But wait, there’s one more.
So, as anyone who knows Bo knows, arguably his most famous touchdown came in 1987 at the expense of “The Boz,” the brash rookie linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks who cultivated his renegade persona at the University of Oklahoma. In a Monday Night game in Seattle, Bo and Boz met head on at the goal line, and Bo won, decisively, practically dragging the Boz on his back into the end zone.
So in the Kia Tecmo Bowl version, here comes the Boz again to attempt to the tackle. Fortunately for the Boz, Bo his the emergency brake on the Sorrento, and Tecmo Boz gets in the passenger seat. “Thanks for not running me over,” says Boz. “You mean, again?” answers Bo.
Michael Jordan – Nike/Gatorade
Michael Jordan changed the game on the court, and he changed it on Madison Ave. His shoe deal with Nike completely re-defined the world of shoe endorsements and helped turn Jordan into as big a star in business as he was on the basketball court. His brand of “Air Jordans” are still turning out new products more than 30 years after the first shoe hit the market, and his early ad campaigns, like that with Gatorade, became the stuff of television legend.
Before Jordan, it was Converse that held sway in terms of television marketing, with the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson “Choose Your Weapon” ad breaking new ground in 1985. But that same year, the first Jordan Nike ads hit the airwaves, and the changing of the guard was clear. The first ad was among the most simple: Jordan picking up a ball on the playground while the sounds of a mission control preparing for a takeoff plays in the background. Slowly, then explosively, Jordan soars to the basket for a slow-motion dunk, then fade to black, and the Air Jordan logo appears.
Similar ads would follow, showing Jordan dunking in different, evocative angles. Then, finally, the takeoff became a second-stage rocket, and in 1987 Jordan flew all the way to Mars. Mars Blackmon, that is. Spike Lee is ubiquitous now, both as an award-winning director and unapologetic Knicks fan. But back in 1987, he was breakthrough filmmaker still quite not yet mainstream, and so his alter-ego, Mars Blackmon, became his early calling card.
Blackmon was a big talker with big glasses, orating with a rapid-fire delivery that was simultaneously annoying and endearing – “Do you know, do you know, do you KNOW?” – extolling the virtues of Michael Jordan the player, and of course, the shoe-wearer. “It’s GOTTA be the shoes!” Mars told America, and America agreed. Air Jordans became the most-coveted shoe in the basketball market, and Nike was on its way to decades of groundbreaking ad campaigns.
But Jordan was about more than sneakers. By 1991, Jordan had assumed the mantle of NBA greatess from Bird and Magic and was in the first year of winning three straight championships. He was in a superstar orbit all to himself, across all sports. So when Gatorade debuted an add which asked its audience to “Be Like Mike,” it was a no-brainer. Everyone wanted to be like Mike, and if they couldn’t dunk, or even afford his shoes, they could drink Gatorde. And they did. How much did Gatorade like Mike? Ten years, $13.5 million. No wonder we all wanted to be like him.