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The evolution of Michael Jordan’s commercials

As Michael Jordan’s career evolved, so did his commercials.

Duke v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

As Brandon Anderson explained on Saturday, this week marks the 20th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s last championship with the Chicago Bulls. As such, we felt it was our duty to give you a week’s worth of information, memories, analysis, and reminders of the impact Jordan had on culture, society, and sports. That includes diving into how his commercials simply aided his quest to become a global icon with an unmatched business empire.

Everyone has their favorites for various reasons. A six-year-old in 1991 has a different memory than a college sophomore in 1988. However, we hope by the time you’ve watched (and re-watched), you begin your week with a reminder of just how profound these advertisements were.

In an age when commercials weren’t something you fast forwarded through on your DVR, these short movies were how we got to know athletes. For Jordan, it was one way he connected with his fan base, compared to the plethora of social media outlets that today’s players use. And as you’ll see, the advertisements slowly evolved to grow with Jordan at different phases of his life.

The Originals

Jordan and Nike’s genius pushed to the forefront of television screens in 1985 due to a series of commercials for the Air Jordan I. There had been endorsement deals and shoe deals before, but nothing with the hype and advertising of Jordan’s new line. Two commercials specifically stand out from the early days and set the stage for the immense popularity that followed. Note that these early commercials focused more on the shoes than on Michael himself.

Banned, 1985

Who doesn’t love to question authority? The NBA had informed the Bulls that MJ could not wear the newly minted shoes citing “uniformity” requirements. You can read the details from this LA Times article from April 26th, 1985. As anybody with kids knows, if you say that they can’t do something, they’re going to do it. The Air Jordan I was no exception.

Man Was Not Meant to Fly, 1985

Conjoined with the “Damn the man!” mentality was the idea that the new Air Jordan I could make you fly. Of course it was absurd, but so was Jordan’s athletic ability. Some may consider this a stretch but this one always reminds me of Apple’s 1984. It’s dramatic, slow to develop, and ultimately iconic. It was the first time that the Jumpman logo actually came to life for the masses to see.

Rockababy, 1987

Rockababy. Rock the Cradle. Rock the Baby. Whatever you want to call it, Jordan recreated the dunk he had unleashed on the Maryland Terrapins just a few years earlier. It also was an upgrade on Dr. J’s original dunk by the same name. While it’s not the most iconic or memorable, it’s importance is found in foreshadowing the merging of the NBA and hip-hop cultures with the catchy beat in the background.

The Mars Blackmon Series

These were a series of commercials where Jordan starred as himself and filmmaker Spike Lee played “Mars Blackmon”, his character in the movie “She’s Gotta Have It”. In the movie, Blackmon is portrayed as a Michael Jordan super fan so the crossover appeal was natural. Whereas the Rockababy commercial introduced an easy, non-controversial hip-hop flavor to NBA and Nike advertising, the Mars Blackmon series fully integrated the two cultures at a time that saw the NBA struggling with off-the-court behavior by its players.

Do You Know/Hangtime, 1988

After a few years of serious commercials that focused more on imagery than words, these introduced humor, pop culture, and showed a different side of Jordan to the public. Shot in the same black-and-white style as “She’s Gotta Have It”, this theme occurred into the early 1990’s.

It’s Gotta be the Shoes, 1990

Mars Blackmon also coined the phrase, “It’s gotta be the shoes!” It was a phrase that littered my childhood at numerous blacktops and basketball courts through the 1990’s. Having lived in Virginia, Kansas, and Texas (twice) as a kid, I can confirm that the phrase was a staple across the country.

Expanding Influence

Most of the early commercials are centered around Nike and the Air Jordan shoes. Mars Blackmon’s series initiated a merging of Jordan’s persona and Nike’s products. As the 90’s rolled around, MJ started spreading out to other products. Gatorade, McDonald’s, and Hanes immediately come to mind. Having established himself as a bona fide NBA star, he started becoming the product. You weren’t buying Gatorade, you were buying Michael.

Be Like Mike, 1993

This commercial’s theme song and overarching sentiment literally inspired a movie by a similar name, Bow Wow’s “Like Mike”, in 2002. Using highlights of MJ, kids, teenagers, and adults we all instantly felt connected to Jordan. That, obviously, was the point. Since most of us could not actually afford his shoes, what better way to be like Mike than drink the same energy drink?

Hare Jordan, 1992

Yeh, this is a commercial for Air Jordan VII’s, but adding Bugs Bunny to the mix gives it a different feel from the other shoe commercials. Hindsight also lets us see that this was the precursor to Space Jam, which adds to it’s importance in the pantheon of MJ commercials and serves as evidence to his increasing crossover appeal. Besides, do you ever feel like you’re really being sold shoes? Or do you feel like you’re being sold a good time with Bugs?

McDonalds H-O-R-S-E, 1993

Another early 90’s classic, Jordan and Larry Bird begin a game of H-O-R-S-E with a Big Mac and fries from McDonald’s on the line. Not only did it give rise to the most insane trick shots in driveway games of H-O-R-S-E, it even inspired a really bad remake 17 years later with LeBron James and Dwight Howard.

Michael vs Mia, 1999

Keeping with the Gatorade theme, this 1999 spot with Mia Hamm joined two very different demographics. Hamm was riding high on the USWNT’s success in the 1999 World Cup, and though he was retired, Jordan was still grabbed our attention. Even if he was getting schooled by Mia Hamm.

Getting to know the GOAT

As the 1990’s gave way to the new millennium, Jordan remained a force on the television screen even if humor gave way to nostalgia. Often set over a musical track or aided by a Michael Jordan voiceover, these took on a more direct approach. The sheer amount of commercials slowed down, but Jordan understood how to pick his spots better than anyone. When Michael started dropping life wisdom, we listened.

Failure, 1997

You probably watched and simply nodded in agreement. Over two decades later, this commercial is still one of MJ’s most often quoted advertisements. In today’s NBA where players regularly hop around looking for the easiest route to a title, its also a reminder just how different Jordan truly was.

What is Love, 2003

This one debuted in 2003 during Jordan’s final All-Star game. Over four minutes of nostalgia and highlights of Jordan’s greatest moments are accompanied by a voiceover where MJ explains what the love of the game means to him. Today it may seem syrupy and hokey, but in 2003 it was a reminder that MJ had dominated our lives for 20 years.

Maybe It’s My Fault, 2008

Jordan spends the majority of the 60 seconds questioning if he made his success look too easy. However, he dismisses that idea in the closing scene where he takes his most direct jab at today’s generation.

Here’s the thing. These are just a few examples of how we grew up with and learned about Michael Jordan. As his career evolved, so did these mini-productions. Somehow, he never got old, tiresome, or grated on our nerves. Sure, he had his detractors, but we always paid attention when he spoke. To a certain degree, we still do. How else do you explain that the ceiling is the roof?

And with that, here’s my personal favorite advertisement starring Michael, Mike, and MJ.