Slate's Ad Report Card: The LeBrons

Seth Stevenson of Slate reviews the new commercials promoting the LeBron James line of Nike shoes. The four ads, titled "Meet the LeBrons," show four different characters — all played by basketball player LeBron James.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In the world of advertising, it's always best to use a pitchman or a woman who appeals to your audience. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, explains how Nike has taken this idea even further. Why settle for one LeBron James when you can have four in one commercial.

SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, slate.com):

In a series of ads titled "Meet the LeBrons," we see four characters, all of them played by basketball star LeBron James, just hanging out together. They're eating dinner...

(Soundbite from ad)

Mr. LEBRON JAMES: Sure is nice to have the whole family here tonight. It's wonderful.

Who made this sauce? Pops, you made this?

(As Pops) This food's good 'cause I make it.

STEVENSON: ...cracking lies.

(Soundbite from ad)

Mr. L. JAMES: (As Pops) Twelve assists.

You're telling them bald-headed lies again, Pops.

(As Pops) And 12 blocks.

Please.

(As Pops) Nah ...(unintelligible) numbers.

STEVENSON: At one point, they nosh on meatballs the size of grapefruits. Later, they all dance to the Rick James hit "Super Freak."

(Soundbite from ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RICK JAMES: (Singing) And she will never let your...

Mr. L. JAMES: OK.

Mr. R. JAMES: (Singing) ...spirit down once you get her on the street.

Mr. L. JAMES: Oh, that feels good.

Mr. R. JAMES: (Singing) She's a super freak...

STEVENSON: These Nike ads are somewhat baffling. Nothing happens in them. There's no explanation as to who these characters are, how they relate to each other, and what if anything they're trying to sell. I eventually manage to suss out that the product in question is their newest LeBron James signature shoe. Of course, I'm at a disadvantage here. I'm in no way the target market for this product. Marquee basketball shoes, that's the industry term for the category, are designed mostly for teen-age boys. Perhaps, Nike's demographers concluded that kids these days reject all but the most oblique marketing approaches. Still, why drop us into loose unformed vignettes in which the dialogue is mumbled, the product is hidden and the premise is completely surreal? Why are there four different LeBrons and why are they living together as a family unit, cooking each other meals?

Nike long dominated the basketball category on the strength of its Air Jordan models, but Michael Jordan has been retired for years now. In 2003, Nike gave teen-ager LeBron James a $90 million shoe contract, betting that LeBron could be Jordan's heir. From the moment that contract was announced, I followed Nike's efforts to mold LeBron's persona. Would they get `gangsta' on us, or would they swerve highbrow?

The debut LeBron ad chose neither path. It showed LeBron stepping on to the court for his first NBA game and being greeted with a nervous paralyzed silence from the crowd. The spot ends as LeBron smiles and simply dives into the flow of the game. Nike's message: `Relax. Sit back. Wait and see what this kid has to offer.'

This "Meet the LeBrons" series seems like the first real effort to give the 21-year-old some personality, but it also says, `Why stop at one personality when you can have four?' Rather than committing to a single image, Nike throws out a smorgasbord and lets us pick our favorite. Are you old-school type who hates flashiness and loves fundamentals? Wise LeBron is for you.

(Soundbite from ad)

Mr. JAMES: (As Wise LeBron) Just let me tell you this story. Now you run around here thinking you good. Well, I've been to the state championship.

STEVENSON: Or perhaps you crave arrogance and bling. Meet All Business LeBron.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. JAMES: (As All Business LeBron) I surprise myself every day I wake up.

(As Wise LeBron) Well, why are you always looking at yourself in the mirror? It's not about you; it's about the shoes.

STEVENSON: Kid LeBron seems aimed the less-athletic lifestyle segment, and Athlete LeBron is for the straight-ahead modern jock. It's four image campaigns in one.

I give the ad a B-plus. In playing multiple roles, LeBron joins a proud tradition; Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets," Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove," Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor." Those guys don't have anything to fear yet. Still, the ad works because James is game for the challenge and turns out to be a talented performer. Michael Jordan could never have pulled this off.

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate.

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