The New American Superstar

Gone are the days of trying to Be Like Mike.  The connectivity brought forth by the digital age has removed the protective veil that once insulated and propped up the athletes of old to super-human status. But, with or without new media technologies the perceived level to which we vaulted athletes in our mind, was doomed to collapse.

And bit by bit, it did.  For years, we’ve witnessed downfall after downfall, from Ron Artest climbing into the stands to attack fans to Elin Nordgren chasing Tiger down with his own golf club, hilarity and irony so extreme they borderline on the poetic.  Over the years we’ve seen too many lapses in character that media and brands can no longer use sponsorships and commercial spots to sell us the primped, primed and overly-engineered identity of yesterday’s athlete.  It’s not new and it’s not believable anymore.

This progression reached an inflection point in 2010, when LeBron James announced that he was going to play for the Miami Heat on a live television special.  The event was so significant it is now known only as The Decision.  Nearly three years later, James is still working to regain his credibility among sports fans.

And, while I used to think the root of fan frustrations came from the fact that LeBron renounced the humble, hard-working city of Cleveland for the tan skinned, botox-injected fakeness of Miami, a dynamic that now occurs regularly in sports, I now realize it boiled down to something else.  What we hated was the seriousness and over-inflated air of importance that this event conveyed about LeBron.  So, important you need a TV special to tell the world who you’re going to play for next year?! Fans went berserk and everyone overlooked the fact that the ad dollars from the :30 minute program raised over $2 million for Boys and Girls Clubs.

Today’s athlete must be willing to explore another approach if he or she wants to reach the mountain top of endorsement dollars.  I’ll elaborate.  Thanks to the creative minds of Madison Avenue and the wild success of campaigns like Old Spice’s Man Your Man Could Smell Like, advertisers are heading in a new direction with their use of celebrity talent.  Instead of the super-serious, “you want to be like me” commercial spots of old, they’ve taken the athlete’s already over-inflated ego and boosted it further to the point of comedy.
 

 
Simply put, today’s athlete makes his fame through commercial spots that enhance or underscore his peculiarities and insecurities.  No one likes a person who takes themselves too seriously.  LeBron learned this the hard way. 
 

 
But, we do like people, and especially athletes, who have no problem laughing at themselves.  Remarkable commercial spots are now achieving this with some regularity.  Some going so far as to become popular culture in and of themselves as evidenced by the Cliff Paul Statefarm spots (below).
 

 
All of these commercials are fantastic. I light up each time a new one comes out that progresses the narrative forward. But, on the flip side, it’s also somewhat sad to think about the fact that athletes have fallen to a more human level in our lives. Once immortalized as hero’s, they’re now just entertainers.

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