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Commercial Culture: Michael Jordan’s Other Legacy

By Andrew Nuschler On June - 10 - 2009

“Sometimes I dream that he is me, you’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be… like Mike, if I could be like Mike. I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike.”

We all know the iconic Gatorade commercial that launched Michael Jordan’s fame into the next stratosphere, a launch on which the NBA rode shotgun. Accompanied by the other big guns from the 1980s—Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, etc.—His Airness played arguably the lead role in taking the NBA’s popularity to new heights.

The addictive ad and larger campaign that blossomed from it played no small part.

Sure, Air Jordans were already a must-have for basketball fans of all ages around the country as early as 1985. Additionally, M.J. was a pseudo-celebrity the moment he put Nike rubber to Association hardwood the same year. I still challenge you to find a more famous commercial than the one Gatorade debuted on August 8, 1991.

I’m talking commercial, period. Not just one featuring a sports star or athletic product.

Oh yeah, the fact Jordan won his first NBA Championship in June of ’91 didn’t hurt the man’s popularity either.

Again, the commercial took Michael Jordan, basketball god in the eyes of NBA fans, and made him Michael Jordan, basketball god in the eyes of America (eventually the world).

Unfortunately, as much as I love Jordan and despite the fact he can do no permanent wrong in my eyes (short of going OJ on us), I can’t help but think his stardom had a counterproductive social element to it—one capable of causing cumulative damage only now being appreciated.

His transformation came at a price, and all of us who follow or are involved in the major professional sports are now feeling the pinch.

That campaign was the first to actually succeed in reaching an enormous and diverse audience while really hammering home a potentially irresponsible message—one that’s been taken too literally by fans and used too liberally by subsequent marketing gurus.

Even worse, the wolf-message was in sheep’s clothing—a catchy tune, shots of the attractive/personable Jordan, and a lot of kids.

Be like Mike—not play like Mike, not practice like Mike, not compete like Mike.  Be like him: wear what he wears, drink what he drinks, eat what he eats, and on an on.

Be is a synonym for live.

Somewhere between there and here, the line between playing like a professional athlete and living like a professional athlete was obliterated.

It is very reasonable to argue the profound success of “Be Like Mike” gave us “MTV Cribs,” those dumb features with Deion Sanders, Twitter updates, and all the rest of the unnecessary looks into the personal lives of athletes.

Hey, if everyone wants to be like Jordan, they’ll want to be like the lesser stars, too. What if we make every minute of their lives look glamorous and then tell the masses this is the goal?

Over and over. And over.

You could even argue the phenomenon—always an undercurrent to the concept of Hollywood—was amplified into a whole new Tinseltown beast in the wake of Jordan’s explosion. I’m not the guy to extend that particular argument any further because I largely try (with much success) to ignore anything coming from that part of Los Angeles beyond the actual movies.

But it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Once America was convinced we should be living like these people, it was only a matter of time before their problems became our problems. If you want to live like someone, it’s safe to assume you admire him or her. If you admire the individual, you’re more likely to forgive little sins.

And, once you’ve forgiven a small sin, it’s easier to forgive a larger one.

Eventually, you have guys ordering hits on their wives and organizing dog-fighting kennels and shooting steroids until their foreheads are legitimate ad spaces. You have players marauding into the stands and fans marauding onto the field/court. You have owners insulting mothers and players doing the same (sometimes to their own mama).

In short, you have general chaos.

If a good portion of America didn’t look up to these guys as role models and men to emulate—both on the playing surface and off it—their nefarious habits would be a confined problem. There would only be minimal concern about a leak into college and/or high school since the fight between negative stigma and the benefits of sound judgment would’ve been a much fairer fight from day one.

Arguably, something like performance-enhancers never could’ve sunk their claws as deeply into the flesh of pro sports had the ever-expanding cult of hero-worship been snuffed in its infancy.

And the cult’s infancy was the Gatorade commercial, which is a significant part of Michael Jordan’s legacy.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying the creators of the ad, or Gatorade, or Mike himself deserve any sort of blame or finger-wagging.

They simply created a bad-ass commercial that worked too freakin’ well.

I don’t believe for a second they should have been aware of the eventual consequences. It took a general public and media too deficient in proper perspective to deliver us at our current tipping point. That sort of thing is hardly foreseeable or even their concern.

They were making a television ad for a sports drink, for Pete’s sake. These were not leaders of government or shapers of social policy.

Furthermore, it is not as if the combination were the only formula capable of generating this sort of response.  It was just the first for which the stars aligned—had the world never been gifted MJ, someone else would’ve come along and probably achieved the same results.

Especially with the invention of the Internet and ubiquity of sports programming available to the modern fan.

Nevertheless, you cannot separate Albert Einstein from the Enola Gay simply because discovery and use of the atomic bomb looks inevitable in hindsight. Nor can you separate Michael Jordan from the athlete-infatuated world of today.

Like I said, I love Jordan—he will always be the greatest athlete of all time to me. Even if a stallion like LeBron James becomes everything we expect and more, he’ll never pass His Airness in these eyes.

Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people agree with me.

Michael Jordan really is like a god to us.

And that’s part of the problem.


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