Witness protection: Marketing LeBron in post-“Decision” landscape

Since LeBron James’ reputation went straight to hell in the court of public opinion in early July, I’ve pondered how you can possibly market someone whose Q rating dropped like a stone following “The Decision.”

As it turns out, Nike and ad agency Wieden+Kennedy knew exactly how to go about doing it.

But personally, I have to admit that I didn’t. I thought long and hard about it. Do you go into full Sprewell mode and have LeBron play the villain? Show him with his family and such in what would probably be a failed attempt at appealing to people’s humanity? Have him speak honestly and earnestly about winning, following his star and playing with his friends?

None of that seemed like the right way to go, which is why a planned post on this remained unwritten.

But Nike’s new “Rise” ad – released in conjunction with the Heat’s first game tomorrow night – is magnificent. Flawless.

A wonderfully clever and effective way to spin the events of this summer in a way that LeBron would never have been able to articulate himself; even if he could, nobody would have given him the chance.

LeBron has hinted on his Twitter account that eventually, he’d go after the “haters” who criticized him all summer. Against what I surmised to be insurmountable odds, this ad spot effectively does that for him.

We had some heavy hitters on this one. W&K art director Taylor Twist – @kobeiverson on Twitter – has long said that he embraced the challenge of this tricky assignment. Stacy Wall was the director of the infamous Lil’ Penny and Barbershop ads, while Sal Totino shot Frost/Nixon and one of my personal favorites, Any Given Sunday, which you can actually tell from the quick cuts, stark imagery and sparse soundscapes.

A little later, I’ll examine where this ad places in the pantheon of LeBron commercials.

Because even the staunchest of LeBron haters, I would imagine, would have to admit that it’s a marvelous achievement in marketing. It reminds me of Michael Jordan’s “Tell me” commercial, in that criticism and doubt are the fuel that ignites his competitive fire — “Tell me I can no longer fly. I want you to.”

There are so many brilliant details that help get the ad’s point across:


  • By starting with him on the set of “The Decision,” it hearkens back to his first ad, which simulated LeBron’s first game against the Kings. Basically, they’re not avoiding the issue.

  • LeBron seems to acknowledge that he knows the way it all went down could have been better orchestrated, admitting that he has made mistakes, a la Eminem on Recovery. The choice he made was not a mistake, but perhaps the way he did it was.

  • He shows himself as a high school phenom. Lest we forget our long relationship with him.

  • The ad acknowledges, using LeBron’s facial expression while his Witness mural fell, that leaving Cleveland was difficult, and more genuinely expresses than he had before that the great moments he and the city had together are fond to him. Of course, Cleveland’s still going to despise him, but the imagery was incredible.

  • The spot touches on the ridiculous notion that LeBron has thrown his legacy away with the perverse scene in which nobody shows up to his Hall of Fame induction.

  • It references his friends. Should he stop listening to them? “They’re my friends,” he answers. I’m not sure whether LeBron thinks Mav Carter led him down the wrong path this summer or not, but I don’t think it matters. Vinnie Chase is loyal, and so is LeBron.

  • It dismisses one of his most vocal and visible critics, Charles Barkley, in whimsical fashion. Mimicking and referring to Barkley’s “I am not a role model” ads is a classic way to point out that Barkley is the pot to LeBron’s kettle, and that Sir Charles happens to live in a glass house.

  • He bulldozes the court – literally – and rhetorically asks if he should start over. The answer obviously is no. It’s just a new chapter in what has been a remarkable journey.


To me, LeBron remains one of the most fascinating athletes we’ve ever had – a blend of pop culture coolness, hip-hop credibility and natural athletic genius that we’ve been privy to like The Truman Show from the time he was 15. He’s maybe even that much more intriguing now, after the events of this summer..

This ad is the first step toward the inevitable rehabilitation of LeBron’s image, which would have happened, ad campaign or not. This just speeds up the process.

We all know this: In general, all you have to do is win, and it fixes everything. And LeBron will win – maybe not the whole thing this year, though it’s certainly possible.

But he wins from the jump by becoming hands-down the biggest attraction in sports, surpassing Kobe Bryant as an anti-hero.

I still can’t figure out exactly why everyone hated LeBron so much this summer. Is it because he didn’t come to your team? I’m a Knicks fan who was disappointed, but happened to think that he didn’t owe me a damn thing.

If you live in Cleveland, I mean, feel however you want. He didn’t owe you much more than he owed me, but it’s the nature of being a fan. It’s a lousy turn of events. You’re entitled. 

But if you don’t live there, why should you care all that much about the ill-advised inherent arrogance and narcissism of “The Decision”? It doesn’t affect you.

It’s not your life. It’s his, to do what he wants with it. And he knows it.


And that’s the crux of the ad.

LeBron’s new ad asks his critics over and over again: “What should I do?”

At the end, he answers it with a rhetorical question: “Should I be who you want me to be?”

The unspoken answer to that is yet another rhetorical question: “Or should I be myself?”

Honestly, we’re going to see when the season starts the paradox that though LeBron painted himself into a corner this summer, leading himself down a path where there are only questions and no answers, it doesn’t really matter.

It’s simple. It’s obvious.

And it’s brilliant.


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