9 Classic Michael Jordan Commercials

From the late 80’s to mid-90’s, no corporation was more renowned for their marketing and advertising efforts than Nike. They turned footwear and sports apparel into culture and athletes into bona fide celebrities in a way not seen since the days of Broadway Joe Namath. This success can largely be attributed to two athletes that became icons: Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson. People awaited their commercials the way the public anticipates summer blockbusters.

Though Bo Jackson has largely faded from the public consciousness, Michael Jordan and his signature Nike line still thrive a more than a decade after his heyday. Why? These nine videos will show you.

1. Michael Jordan vs. Michael Jordan (vs. Michael Jordan)

In addition to being widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time, Jordan is also revered for being a ruthless competitor. When recently discussing LeBron’s move to Miami, Jordan conveyed that he viewed his job as beating the best players in the league, not playing with them. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the sportsmanship of this philosophy, it’s impossible to argue with the results (six championships).

Nothing encapsulates Jordan’s warrior spirit better than this Gatorade ad showing late-career Michael taking on young Chicago Bulls Michael in a trash-talk laden game of one-on-one, not even giving his former self any respect. The appearance of a young Michael in a Tar Heel uniform reminds us of just how long this guy has been the best in the world.

2. Bird vs. Jordan

While Bird peaked a few years earlier than Michael, it’s not a huge stretch to say that these two guys, along with Magic Johnson, ushered in the modern style of basketball after a relatively dormant period during the mid to late-70’s. While the Jordan vs. Bird dynamic was never as captivating as the Bird vs. Magic match ups, there was something compelling about seeing two players with such different styles and lineages competing to be the best.

We will just ignore the fact that it was an ad for McDonalds and let it stand on its own merits.

Two side notes: Michael’s truly atrocious outfit doesn’t really jive with his “win or go home” attitude. It’s spectacularly awful. The other is the logic problem here. They are essentially playing “HORSE” for Michael’s lunch, which is bullshit. Michael bought his lunch, and now they’re playing for it? There’s literally no upside for Michael. Best-case scenario is that he gets to eat the lunch he paid for. Considering this is brought to us by the corporation that launched the “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, I guess it’s to be expected.

3. How Michael Defy Gravity?

This was an ad featuring the ubiquitous “Mars Blackman” during the Air Jordan era. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect about the efficacy of this campaign is that once Nike and Michael got the Air Jordan ball rolling, they didn’t even need to show the shoes they were selling. Which, by the way, were the Air Jordan V’s, perhaps the most iconic and awesome shoe ever released, in this author’s opinion. The man WAS the brand and the product. Since then, many companies have approached campaigns in a similar fashion, with poor results. Reebok’s “Dan and Dave” comes to mind.

4. Be Like Mike

Gatorade, along with Nike was able to turn one man into the face of their company, with staggeringly successful results. Nowhere is that more apparent than the “Be Like Mike” ad that became so pervasive that it went so far as to become a pop culture catchphrase, getting dropped in Sportscenter telecasts and on basketball courts the world over.

The ad further demonstrates how important this athlete was to the game of basketball. “Be Like Mike” showed that there is no greater example of success and dominance in any facet than there is with Michael Jordan and the game of basketball. There were no dissenters. Michael Jordan was the best.

5. Michael Jordan’s Fake Retirement

Besides being a wildly clever commercial starring the never-not funny Steve Martin (except for his last 10 movies), this ad showed that Michael was still the best, still the most captivating player even after his original retirement in 1993, at the top of his game.

The ad plays up the conspiracy theory angle in a hilarious JFK-style fashion. Everything from the references, to the reenactments to the names (Motorboat Jones. Awesome.) is a spot on parody, demonstrating that Nike has the chops to make effective and entertaining ads for a player that doesn’t even play basketball anymore. Once again, a testament to both Nike and the man himself.

Beyond that, this solidifies Nike’s ability to make “ads as entertainment”, which created excitement for people to see the newest ad Nike had to offer. In the days of Budweiser frogs and talking E*Trade babies, that might not seem so special, but Nike led the charge back in the day.

6. Hare Jordan vs. Air Jordan

Just because a clip is classic doesn’t mean it’s good. The partnership between Nike and Looney Tunes coincided quite suspiciously with the release of Space Jam, a movie that featured, to the exclusion of most everything else, well, Nike and Looney Tunes.

This partnership pretty much signified the end of the Air Jordan heyday. While record numbers of shoes were sold in subsequent releases, the cache of the Air Jordan brand never fully recovered from what many perceived as a cheap co-branding exercise. While this commercial is widely remembered, it was never widely embraced.

7. Failure

This commercial was a significant departure for Nike. Rather than showing MJ in the context of a basketball court or game, this ad spotlights the rarely-acknowledged “big pimpin’” MJ, who was generally placed on the back burner in favor of the cutthroat competitor and game dominator that the sporting world had grown to know. While this ad wasn’t a failure by any stretch, the lack of any follow-up commercials in this vain indicate that audiences were more comfortable seeing the great one in the context of basketball, rather than strutting down hallways in overcoats and earrings. Further, this commercial is just one more example of Nike selling the player, rather than the product. No product is shown or mentioned during the entire ad.

8. Coca-Cola ET Commercial

While this is perhaps one of the more derivative ads featuring MJ, it also ended up being one of the most iconic of his career. While the ad is a clear reference to ET as Jordan’s silhouette is shown as he jumps past the moon to grab a bottle of Coke.

While the ad may have been largely unspectacular, the image of Jordan in a sprawling jump across the moon became fodder for one of the most popular Jordan posters, proving that an iconic image, no matter how unoriginal, could prove to be on of the most enduring snapshots of Jordan’s career. Never mind the fact that it almost certainly took place on a green screen miles from the nearest basketball court.

9. Air Jordan 1 – “Banned”

How it all began. While the surfaces of the commercial appear quite standard (a player and his shoes), even the first installment of the Air Jordan advertising saga incorporated a subversive message discussing how the NBA banned these shoes weeks after they were introduced.

This unorthodox approach to selling the shoes will become the hallmark of the Air Jordan campaign further down the line. We see that from the beginning, Nike was establishing this brand by flexing not only its star power, but also the creative muscle behind the campaign. While the ad may seem quite tame, its tone set the stage for perhaps one of the most successful product launches in the history of retail, building a hero, a brand, and a company all built around one man.

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