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E.M. Swift
August 05, 1991
Some black superstars cash in big on an ability to shed their racial identity
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August 05, 1991

Reach Out And Touch Someone

Some black superstars cash in big on an ability to shed their racial identity

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Nike CEO Philip Knight is the self-described Branch Rickey of advertising. When asked how much of the credit he deserves for Jordan's phenomenal commercial appeal, he isn't self-effacing. "I have to think we had a lot to do with it, since we've done it again with Bo Jackson and David Robinson," he says.

Haughty as that statement may sound, there's a lot of truth to it. Perhaps the best example of Nike's promotional clout comes not from the success of its black superstar spokesmen but from that of a white one, Andre Agassi. Thanks in large part to Nike's irreverent campaigns, which highlight his long hair, earring and outrageous clothes, Agassi has become the top American draw in men's tennis. Yet, unlike peers Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, he has never won a Grand Slam event.

The secret of Nike's success is that, rather than use athletes as interchangeable jocks, the company has given each spokesman an appealing screen personality that, in the words of Nike's vice-president of marketing, Tom Clarke, "creates an emotional tie between the consumer and the spokesman." Once that tie has been established, the spokesman becomes an asset to whatever product he endorses—which enhances his reach as an endorser. Hence Bo Jackson, who in real life battles a stammer and is often downright hostile to the media, comes across in commercials as a funny, warm, witty ham. That stays with him when he steps over to do a commercial for Pepsi—a deal that was negotiated for him in part by Nike, which has recently entered the field of athlete representation—or any other product. In addition to Jackson, Nike represents Scottie Pippen and Jerry Rice. And it has a new sneaker campaign in the works that will star loudmouthed, oft-fined Charles Barkley.

"It doesn't hurt to be controversial," says Knight, bucking the prevailing wisdom of marketing men. "Distinctive personalities are important, but you don't have to be loved. And color really doesn't matter. A lot of people have written that we've signed these black stars to sell to kids in the inner city. We didn't. [Studies have shown that only 13.8% of Nike's 1990 shoe sales were to members of minorities.] We were looking for great personalities who cut across racial lines. In my own personal focus group, which is my 17-year-old son and his friends, I guarantee you that Michael Jordan is a better salesman than Larry Bird."

Few would argue with that assessment. Jordan has taken this crossover business and, as is his wont, deposited it on another planet. It is one thing to be admired across the racial spectrum; Jordan is idolized. On the court, he is a paradigm of grace, excellence, sportsmanship and imagination. Off the court, he exudes family values and clean living. He is more superhero than superstar to vast segments of the American public. He crosses over the generation gap too. In the "Q scores" put out by Marketing Evaluations, Inc., a market-research group that ranks celebrities by factoring both familiarity and popularity, Jordan ranks first among athletes with the 50-and-over set, first with children ages six to 11 and first with teens.

What's not to like? "He has great skin, a great smile, great teeth, and the camera loves him," says Ashe. "Plus he's one of the very few athletes who make you go, 'Wow!' And he is a genuinely personable guy. He's a dream. The only negative publicity I've ever seen about the guy is those teenagers robbing and killing each other for his shoes."

Some of those shoes retail for $125, a price many parents consider obscene. Jordan has also been taken to task for promoting the Illinois State Lottery; critics say that state lotteries solicit money from those people who can least afford to play, many of whom are black. And, increasingly, black activists have been critical of Jordan for not speaking out more forcefully on issues of concern to low-and middle-income blacks.

"People always try to bring down these stars to see if they have clay feet," says Falk, who denies that Jordan has given up a social conscience in return for money and popularity. "Michael is proud of his identity, proud that his parents brought him up in a color-blind environment."

But what does Jordan believe in? That isn't at all clear. Jordan declined to be interviewed for this article, and thus we are left with conflicting messages: Young people should buy $125 sneakers, stay in school, eat at McDonald's, stay off drugs, drink Coke (for now) or Gatorade (soon), eat Wheaties and play the lottery.

In fairness, though, what does Joe DiMaggio believe in, good coffee? Or Mickey Mantle? How about Arnold Palmer? Joe Montana? Why should Jordan be held to a higher standard than white superstars who have also had a powerful pulpit?

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