For seven memorable Nike commercials, it has been what the shoe people call the Spike (as in Lee) and Mike (as in Jordan) Show. Now it’s Installment Eight of Spike and Mike. Only there’s a tall asterisk. Mike’s not here for this one. The challenge on this first Saturday in March is this: How do you make a Spike and Mike commercial without actually using Mike?
The flip answer: very cleverly. The complete answer is a little more detailed than that.
Scene 1: Spike Lee — culture hero, New York Knicks fan, and filmmaker (Do the Right Thing) — is sitting on a New York City soundstage. To be precise, he is sitting on the bed in Mars Blackmon’s room, the set for the 30-second commercial for Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoes making its debut during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament, which is now playing on a television screen near you.
It’s 8 a.m. In roughly two hours, Lee, the commercial’s director, also will assume the identity of Mars Blackmon himself, complete with full Mars regalia (shorts, T-shirt, and a bicyclist’s cap bearing the legend ”Brooklyn”). Ten hours of painstaking drudgery later, there will be a new installment in the Mars Blackmon legend, which already has made him both a cult movie fave and a hip icon in the world of television advertising.
For the uninitiated, Mars Blackmon is the hyperbolic Brooklyn character Lee first portrayed in his 1986 breakthrough film, She’s Gotta Have It, in which he displayed a jazzy patter and a hilarious, hard-edged way with words. (In the film, Mars insults a romantic rival by calling him ”a 16-piece Chicken McNugget head.”)
In the four years since that film, Mars has been one of the main attractions of the witty, black-and-white Air Jordan commercials in which he costars with Michael Jordan, the shoes’ namesake and the stellar, gravity-defying guard for the Chicago Bulls.
The series has provided some of the funniest moments in Nike advertising this side of Bo Diddley telling Bo Jackson, ”You don’t know Diddley.”
Those words form the tag line for the most popular Nike commercial of all: the ”Bo Knows…” ad, which was introduced in July 1989. In that commercial, baseball-football superstar Bo Jackson is shown to be proficient in basketball, tennis, running, weights — in fact, everything but hockey and rhythm-and-blues guitar.
Nike ads are pretty good at creating catchphrases such as ”Just Do It” or ”Bo Knows (pick a sport, any sport).” Sports Illustrated borrowed the latter for a cover headline on quarterback Joe Montana’s fourth Super Bowl victory: ”Joe Knows Super Bowls.”
Nike, to be sure, knows sports and shoes. And Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland,Ore.-based ad agency that has handled the company’s account since 1982, knows Nike. But these ads also display an impressive knowledge of What’s Hip and New in music and film technique. This knowledge gives these commercials an up-to-the-minute texture. They also cultivate and encourage an attitude toward sports that is both inspiring and irreverent.
In a 1988 ad, triathlete Joanne Ernst lays down a heavy-duty pep talk on getting in shape that makes you feel as if you’re in the Marines. She caps her harangue by saying, ”It wouldn’t hurt to stop eating like a pig either.”
Elizabeth Dolan, a Nike spokeswoman, says: ”We want to show something that conveys the excitement of sports but still brings our athletes across as human beings. The Spike and Mike commercials convey what we’re trying to establish with our audience. You have Michael the performer interacting with Mars, the ultimate fan, in his awe and excitement for what Michael’s doing. That’s kind of how we imagine people responding to all our ads.”
In a recent installment of Spike and Mike (a commercial that had its premiere during February’s NBA All-Star Game), Mars puts his face close to the camera and asks Douglas Kirkpatrick, an Air Force lieutenant colonel and member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, ”Yo, professor! Do you know how Michael Jordan defies gravity? Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?”
Kirkpatrick (his face impassive, his voice a drone) replies: ”Michael Jordan has overcome the acceleration of gravity by the application of his muscle power in the vertical plane, thus producing a low-altitude earth orbit.”
Jordan looks at the camera with the barest display of skepticism.
”A what?” Mars asks.
”Do you know what I mean?” Kirkpatrick asks in the same monotone as his face nears the camera, Mars-style. ”Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?”