Dark fantasy: Kobe/Rodriguez prove ad wizards for Nike

Up in lights With all due respect to Blake Griffin and his somewhat disappointing sponsored dunk over (the hood of) a car — a Kia, no less — I think my favorite thing to come out of last weekend was the very-late-Friday-night release of Kobe Bryant’s new Nike ad/short film, The Black Mamba.

Swallowed up in all the Carmelo Anthony hysteria was one of the smartest, funniest and most unique sneaker ad campaigns in quite some time. (Video after the jump)

As a fan of both Nike’s basketball advertising campaigns and Robert Rodriguez’s movies, when I heard Rodriguez was directing an ad to promote the Zoom Kobe VI, I thought that was a good look for Rodriguez and an even better one for Kobe.

After all, you wouldn’t think of this as being Kobe’s realm. When you think about him, you think about his steely resolve, his laser-sharp focus, his competitive fire. We know Kobe has a sense of humor, but most of his career and image — including his completely ridiculous rap CD, which I own on vinyl (!) — has been completely without irony.

That’s what’s so refreshing about Mamba. As Bryant detailed during his Q&A in New York for Foot Locker last week, he wanted to do something unique and break away from the mold:

We were brainstorming, just having a good time, kicking around various ideas. And I wanted to do something that was different, I didn’t just want to do your generic shoe commercial. I wanted to do something a little different that tied in the shoe with the personality, kind of mixed it all together. And Rodriguez, he’s one of my favorite directors in the world for Desperado, and all the great things he’s done, Machete… The way that he shoots things is different in and of itself. I called him, asked him if he was down to do it, he was like, ‘I’m down,’ and there you have it.

Simply doing a six-minute movie with Bryant playing a Machete-type role would probably have still worked out okay, but I’m not sure Kobe would have the moxie to carry it off in a serious manner designed to generate unintentional comedy. Instead, Bryant and Rodriguez sat down for a conversation to conceptualize the mini-movie, while visualizing their ideas.

Designed by Wieden+Kennedy, the agency behind LeBron James’ phenomenal Rise ad, The Black Mamba’s trailer didn’t indicate the format would resemble a commentary track on a DVD, but that was a slick idea. Framing the “movie” around the making of the movie gives the campaign a true touch of originality.

As I noted after seeing the trailer, the ad resembles Nike’s 2004 Chamber of Fear ads for LeBron — also designed by Wieden+Kennedy — in terms of putting an NBA player in a fantastical setting. Both LeBron and Kobe had to go through various basketball-themed challenges before an epic, climactic showdown on a court. (LeBron faced a cartoon version of himself, while Kobe took on five thugs enlisted by a perfectly cast Kanye West as a 1970s-style criminal mastermind.)

Though the basic idea of the two campaigns is pretty similar, the Kobe ad is quite different in that it utilizes the meta-movie structure. For all we know, W+K was knowingly parodying their own Chamber of Fear ad for their own amusement given a few years of perspective.

After all, that wouldn’t be the only thing getting parodied.

Rodriguez’s Bryant ad evokes with a wink elements of the exploitation-style movies on his resume. The comic book-style title screen is an example of that, as is the presence of Danny Trejo. (Rodriguez jokes that he originally wanted Mickey Rourke, but opted for “someone cool who I know I can get.”)

Rodriguez jokes around a bit with the requisite silliness of a lot of his films. As Rodriguez explains: “Product placement gives us a bigger budget. Bigger budget… bigger explosions…” — as something huge blows up.

Meanwhile, Bryant has some fun playing off his vaunted intensity while planning the film with Rodriguez, deadpanning: “The Black Mamba (dramatic pause) has to battle. The Black Mamba (dramatic pause) has to win.”

I mean, this is just great stuff. Meanwhile, classic Kobe: He used the whole thing as a learning experience.

You know what this is for me? An opportunity to learn. I love talking with them and figuring out what makes them great at what they do, and trying to learn as much as I possibly can. Until the day I die, I’m going to continue to be a sponge and continue to learn. So for me, it was a great experience having Bruce [Willis] there, having Robert there, having ‘Ye there. ‘Ye and I, we’d planned on doing something for Nike years ago. … So when this opportunity came, we jumped. His character has a lot of energy in it, he puts a great performance on, and it’s a lot of fun.

In terms of attention, Mamba was like a Hollywood blockbuster that might instead end up a cult film — well, as much as one with 1.7 million YouTube views could be. Still, few people I talked to about it had any idea it existed, since — to my knowledge — no versions of it aired on television except for the 30-second trailer a few weeks back.

Basketball aficionados were of course aware of it, and Nike had banner ads on sports and hip-hop sites streaming the advertisement. As such, it really had the feel of a viral film, though not quite as much as this past fall’s “KD’s neighbor” videos. And really, the commercial was selling a product that basically sells itself; Kobe’s Supreme/Rice high school sneaker sold out in a matter of minutes at the Foot Locker event.

But the potential of the ad to hit a relatively distinct audience is what resonated for me. My girlfriend, who I’d describe as a casual basketball fan, liked the commercial, getting a kick out of the involvement of Kanye and Willis. I haven’t yet shown it to my neighbor, a film student and Rodriguez fan who doesn’t really watch sports, but I can’t imagine he won’t love it. I’ve had a few non-basketball fans who I’ve told about it ask me for the link.

In turn, Rodriguez’s oeuvre is exposed to a subset of basketball mavens and sneakerheads that may not have necessarily paid him much mind before.

The Black Mamba was no “Gotta be the shoes” or “Lil’ Penny”; it was hardly an instant sensation. But it stood out to me as a beacon of creativity in a mostly cookie-cutter genre of basketball commercials, and it set the bar high for future ads of its ilk.

That is… until Nike gets Tarantino for LeBron.

I admit, that seems like too much to ask. But a guy can dream…

Royale with cheese, LeBron?

Esoteric

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