Schooled: The Evolution of the Basketball Sneaker Commercial

  • "Banned"

    Michael Jordan, Nike


    One of the first modern sneaker commercials helped introduce us to MJ’s first shoe. Right from the start it was different, and Nike received a massive marketing boost from the NBA’s decision to ban the shoes over the radical colors. It didn’t take a genius to make this one sell.

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  • "Choose Your Weapon"

    Larry Bird, Magic Johnson – Converse


    Converse, on the other hand, was still firmly entrenched atop the basketball hierarchy because they had the game’s biggest names under their umbrella. One of the reasons Jordan went with Nike in the first place was they were the new kid on the block willing to do something different. Converse only needed to market the game’s biggest names to sell.

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  • "Mars Blackmon"

    Michael Jordan, Spike Lee – Nike


    Perhaps the greatest ad campaign ever for a basketball shoe, Nike was the first to cross over into pop culture, getting Spike Lee to play the same sneaker-loving character from his movie She’s Gotta Have It┬áin the new commercial series. It took the Air Jordan III and gave it its first breath as a lifestyle product.

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  • "Role Model"

    Charles Barkley – Nike


    After the explosion of Michael Jordan into a cultural and global icon, Nike had tapped into a valuable resource. It wasn’t just about the shoes. It wasn’t just about the names involved. It was personality. Market a player’s personality and people would buy in, even if it was controversial.

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  • "Lil Penny"

    Penny Hardaway – Nike


    And then when you want to make the player cooler than he really is, just bring in OTHER personalities to validate him. Penny became the game’s definition of cool because he started doing commercials with Lil Penny (voiced by Chris Rock) and Tyra Banks.

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  • "Freestyle"



    By 2001, the game had officially, finally, gone back to the streets, and they’d claimed it through the AND1 Mixtape Tour. At this point, it was about authenticity. If you wanted to connect with the average consumer, the question you had to answer was: Do the streets love you?

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  • "Answer 4"

    Allen Iverson – Reebok


    That same year saw the explosion of Allen Iverson, the most captivating athlete in the game since Jordan. His reign atop the game was short but he impacted it in so many ways, from the music to the culture to the product to the clothing.

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  • "The LeBrons"

    LeBron James – Nike


    Eventually, a high schooler named LeBron took his place, a personality so large you couldn’t hope to capture him in one 30-second spot. So what did everyone do? They capitalized on that outsized ego. Nike came through with two funny gimmicks. First, they gave LeBron his own family of “LeBrons” and then later they turned him — along with Kobe Bryant — into swift-talking puppets.

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  • "Rise"

    LeBron James – Nike


    By this point, it wasn’t about just selling the shoes anymore. They did that just based off of brand and name recognition. And it wasn’t about making the players seem cool, either. Everyone already knew they were cool. It was about making statements. You want to be down with this athlete? Here’s how and here’s why. It was about creating an army, loyalty, fans who will follow their players through thick and thin.

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  • "Basketball Is Everything"

    Derrick Rose – adidas


    Nowadays, players market so much of themselves through social media that most fans will already know everything about them before they get their first commercial. Brands are building off of that now. It’s not enough to show a player is cool — we already know that. It’s not enough to be controversial — we’ll know these things so far in advance that they’ll lose some of their luster. Sometimes you have to dig deeper, like adidas did here with D-Rose.

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  • Air Jordan 1
  • Converse Weapon
  • Michael Jordan, Spike Lee
  • Charles Barkley not a role model
  • Penny Hardaway Lil Penny
  • Nike Freestyle
  • LeBron James Nike LeBron 4 commercial
  • LeBron James Rise Nike
  • Derrick Rose Basketball Is Everything adidas commercial

You probably can’t remember the first Nike ad because, and I’m just guessing here, I highly doubt you’re old enough to recall it. We’re talking 1982 and we’re talking about a commercial that honored runners everywhere. Not a product. Not a shoe. Just technology and the mindset that made it possible. It was the Swoosh’s way of promising better things ahead.

While looking back on it now shows how boring and ridiculous it was, it also provided somewhat of a blueprint for later years. It provided an idea, the thought that you’d NEED THESE SHOES if you really wanted to be “cool” or really wanted to achieve something. Over the course of the last 33 years, that hasn’t changed or wavered. Sure, you’d eventually see commercials with players as superheroes, with players and their mini-me, with players and movie characters, but even if the story was presented in a different way, the core values remained the same. They probably always will, too.

Today, with more people interested in sneakers than ever before, the game has changed and nowhere is that more apparent than in the ads that follow the shoes. I grew up on Lil Penny and some of the greatest Michael Jordan commercials ever made. I can look back on the Kobe Bryant/Hyperdunk/Aston Martin craze and smile, just as the younger generation of today gets hyped up off of Nike’s classics ads depicting LeBron James or adidasamazing interpretation of Derrick Rose‘s journey.

The hype has never been stronger and part of that is because the ads have been so strong for a very, very long time. This is Schooled: The Evolution of the Basketball Sneaker Commercial.


Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney

image via Nike