Michael Jordan was a game-changer on the court as soon as he was drafted. But MJ also was an instant game-changer off the court, eschewing the popular Converse for the still-under-the-radar Nike and becoming the focal point for an ongoing, cross-product ad campaign.

Let’s take a look at some of MJ’s best commercials, and how his commercial “character” evolved.

COMMERCIAL: Air Jordan’s “banned”
SIGNIFICANCE: The first Air Jordans were black and red, in honor of Jordan’s new team. But since they weren’t in step with the team’s shoes, the NBA fined Jordan for wearing them. He wore them anyway, of course, with Nike paying the fine. Here we get no character: just face, body, and shoes. A badass, very effective commercial, to be sure, but nothing like what was on the horizon.


COMMERCIAL: It’s Gotta Be the Shoes
SIGNIFICANCE: So it’s 2013 and you’re an NBA fan not crazy about a few things in the NBA--the high contracts, the high ticket costs and the very likely possibility that the league attempts to control game outcomes through shady officiating. Well, you have three people to thank for that, more or less: ad man Jim Riswold, filmmaker Spike Lee and a young basketball player named Michael Jordan.

As outlined in the brilliant book “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and The World He Made,” author David Halberstam details the transformation of Jordan’s commercial character: “The previous [Jordan] commercials … had been quite conventional. They showed his sheer athletic brilliance, as well as the beauty of his body. Who he was … had not yet been explored. But Riswold had other ideas. […] If Jordan was so exemplary a human being … then he posed an intriguing challenge for an advertising man: how to reveal this special quality in a movie that lasted all of thirty seconds.”

Enter Spike Lee, the young filmmaker who had just made “She’s Gotta Have It,” in which Lee plays a young bike messenger and hoops fanatic named Mars Blackmon, a youth who lives in New York yet ADORED Jordan. Team a hip, young, black filmmaker like Spike Lee with Michael Jordan, and then team the brash, hilarious Mars Blackmon with “Michael Jordan,” and now you’ve really got something.


COMMERCIAL: MJ & Mars: “Nobody” and “Nola”
SIGNIFICANCE: The Mars Blackmon commercials were a smashing success, and they proved Riswold right in his vision. From Halberstam: “If the Nike people could show that [Jordan] was a likeable human being as well, if they could reveal the innate charm that so many people, including Riswold himself, felt soon after meeting Jordan, then they would have a main character, whom they could begin to unveil through a story line.”

The dynamic between Jordan and Mars was set. Since Mars talked about MJ in “She’s Gotta Have It,” Jordan now felt like a character from the movie, Mars’s good buddy Michael who was cooler and smoother than Mars, but also a good friend. Here we have the jokey, interplay between Jordan and Mars …


…and here we see Jordan the ladies man seducing Nola Darling, the lead character from “She’s Gotta Have It,” whom Mars briefly dated.


COMMERCIAL: The Coca Cola Tree House Dunk
SIGNIFICANCE: This is where the fun times created by Riswold, Lee and Jordan start to become culturally dangerous. Halberstam explains how Nike’s creation of the Jordan character allowed other companies like McDonald’s, Coke, and Gatorade to build on that. As Jordan’s gent David Falk said: “Nike spent more than $5 million on advertising, so now we can walk into a designer like Guy Laroche … and say ‘You don’t have to spend that much because Nike and McDonald’s and Coke are constantly putting him on television for you.”

Here we have a young Michael delivering Cokes to some boys in a treehouse, as MJ’s mom (and that’s really her) cheers on her son. Note how this commercial effectively doubles as an Air Jordan commercial, complete with a close-up of the Jumpman logo and a classic MJ dunk.



COMMERICAL: Jordan vs. Bird for a Big Mac
SIGNIFICANCE: Here we have Jordan’s most famous McDonald’s commercial, the game of high-stakes H-O-R-S-E with Larry Bird for Jordan’s Big Mac. This commercial was brilliant for a few reasons. If MJ was a main character, then he must have supporting characters, so this commercial actually mirrored what was happening in the league as other players became supporting characters in “the story of the NBA.”

We also have a commercial that very subtly spills the beans on Jordan’s gambling problem. (Or, as his father James called it, his “competition problem.”) I mean really, what kind of lunatic buys lunch and then immediately agrees to risk it in a gambling proposition, and to a pure-shooter no less? Bird hustles him right out of the gate by making Michael agree, “No dunking.”

The commercial capitalized on Riswold’s “story line” idea in a new way. Jordan and Bird’s game of H-O-R-S-E was so intense that it couldn’t be completed in 30 seconds, so the commercial would fade out and they’d still be shooting. Then in the next commercial break, or the next week, or whenever the hell it happened, Jordan and Bird would still be shooting, and so kids would be thrilled to sit and watch the commercial because we wanted to see who would win the Big Mac. Devilishly genius advertising, no?

This was a commercial that schoolchildren across the country would emulate. If you grew up in the ‘90s, every game of H-O-R-S-E ended with you stipulating, “… nothing but net.” We would then, of course, go out for McDonald’s.



COMMERICAL: Be Like Mike
SIGNIFICANCE: Ah yes … the jingle to end all jingles. This actually came out two years before the Jordan vs. Bird commercial, and is the transition from Fun Jordan to Hero Jordan. Here we have a whole crew of fans literally singing Jordan’s praises, and notice that the song lyrics echo the theme from the first Mars Blackmon commercial. Is it the shoes? Is it the Gatorade? What is it? Well, it’s Michael Jordan, of course, and while you’ll never be Jordan, you can at least buy the stuff he gets for free.


COMMERICAL: “What if I was just a basketball player …”
SIGNIFICANCE: This commercial of MJ shooting free throws in an empty, darkened gym is the birth of Hero Jordan. Jordan’s legacy is now center stage, as the pure arrogance of Nike and Jordan seeps in. “What if I wasn’t on TV every other second?” says the guy on TV. This is the commercial version of the man who talks in the third person. And since the spot opens with the word “JORDAN” on a black screen, Nike is no longer making any pretense about what they’re selling. There is no mention of shoes or burgers or anything else--this is pure MJ.


COMMERICAL: Jordan vs. Barkley, the baseball years
SIGNIFICANCE: Here’s where the Jordan story line became a beast unto itself. Jordan was no longer playing basketball, but so what? He’s still “Michael Jordan,” and he’s still selling sneakers, and we still want to watch him, even if it’s only in 30-second spots. Jordan’s traded Bird for Barkley, and honestly, I’m surprised they didn’t make waaaaaay more of these commercials, as the dynamic between the two friends and rivals was that of natural foils.


COMMERICAL: Michael Jordan as “Johnny Kilroy”
SIGNIFICANCE: In 1994, Steve Martin gave us his theory on Jordan “faking his retirement” so he could play semi-pro ball under the name “Johnny Kilroy.” Lots to unpack here. Fans were so hungry to see Jordan that we were now making commercials about his retirement. Conspiracy theorists can point to this commercial as proof that Jordan didn’t actually retire but the league insisted he lay low while his gambling charges dissipated.

You’ll also notice that the commercials were starting to get longer. Just like how “Hey Jude” could get radio play in 1968 despite being twice the length of a normal song simply because station managers knew everyone wanted to hear the Beatles, so too did networks realize that viewers would watch a minute-long Jordan commercial without complaining. In fact … why not make it a two-parter? Done and done.

Again, there’s no product here, except that the Nike logo pops up at the end. This is simply a Michael Jordan movie.


COMMERICAL: CEO Jordan
SIGNIFICANCE: Let’s skip ahead to the second threepeat and “CEO Jordan.” This was a return to the Fun Jordan character, as we see what MJ really does during halftime: he changes into a suit and fedora, heads into a “Hudsucker Proxy”-like office building, and approves shoe designs. He’s then so good that he can ball out in wingtips.

The length was still growing (we’re up to 90 seconds), as was the story line and the character: now we’re thinking of Jordan not just as a player, but as a businessman. Or as Shawn Carter so eloquently put it, “Jordan’s not a businessman, he’s a business, man.”

Let MJ handle his business. Damn.

COMMERICAL: Be Like Mike, the celebrity edition
SIGNIFICANCE: Seven years after the original, Gatorade revived “Be Like Mike” during the 1998 playoffs, with a gaggle of celebs singing the song. The Larry Bird character, then coach of the Indiana Pacers and Jordan’s main Eastern Conference nemesis, had apparently changed his tune, so to speak, about participating in Jordan commercials. “I’m not gonna sing,” says the straight-laced Bird.

You’ll be the only one, the commercial seems to imply.


COMMERICAL: 39 vs. 23.
SIGNIFICANCE: The greatest of all Jordan “commercials,” even though it’s less a commercial than a Jordan retrospective. What was this for again? Oh that’s right--Gatorade. The character here is not Fun Jordan or even Hero Jordan, but rather Gym Rat Jordan, and really, it’s about us: we the fans have aged right alongside MJ. We remember when he was young, and now we’ve watched him grow old. *sheds tear*


COMMERICAL: Goodbye Mars.
SIGNIFICANCE: The closing of the Mars Blackmon story line, from the end of Jordan’s Wizards career. MJ doesn’t appear and speaks only in two-word drops. But like “I’m Back,” what more do you need to say?


COMMERICAL: Let Your Game Speak
SIGNIFICANCE: There are plenty of other cool MJ commercials, and plenty of good ones from after his playing days. But to me, nothing tops this Jordan Brand commercial from 2006. This is the ultimate in branding: Jordan’s physical image is so prevalent that they made a commercial simply remaking his best moments, but with kids.

That was the genius of this commercial: MJ now lived inside a whole generation of hoopers. He was so well-known, we didn’t even have to see him or hear his name. We simply knew.


Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor.

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