Air Jordans as a Popular Culture Object
The popularity of the basketball shoe, the Air Jordan, was the result of a commonly successful campaign which links a product with a sports star as means of gaining favor and popularity by consumers. This is a technique which has been used by advertisers for decades. However, what makes the Air Jordan shoe slightly more remarkable than the dozens of products this formula has been used upon is based around the uncanny and highly extraordinary talent of Michael Jordan himself. Michael Jordan’s talent as a basketball player orbited around his almost supernatural ability to fly above the court, towards the basketball net, soaring past his opponents. “Thanks to meticulous brand management and careful product reinvention, these basketball shoes have been flying off the shelves for more than 20 years. Today the popularity of Air Jordans is based upon the appeal of the product and the legacy of the celebrity. Basketball star Michael Jordan is a legend. His is also a role model and a marketing product as well as a cultural icon. Many would argue that Michael Jordan helped build the ‘House of Nike.’ The marketing format for the Air Jordan shoe has been unique and basic at the same time. It focused on the charismatic star’s overpowering, almost superhuman, athleticism” (Steinberg & Kehler, 2010, p.108). This excerpt demonstrates how the marketing campaign for the Air Jordan went above and beyond a celebrity sports endorsement: Nike was able to strategically use Michael Jordan’s almost magical quality as an athlete to create a mythology around the shoe and thus a following and devoted consumer base that has lasted decades upon decades.
Celebrity athletes have been a cause for imitation in the world of men’s fashion for over a century, a fact which made endorsements and advertising campaigns which revolved around a male celebrity a strong recipe for success. Men, being the major audience and fan members of male athletes naturally came to emulate them when it came to fashion, starting in the 1920s: “Sports stars such as golfer Bobby Jones and tennis player Bill Tilden became fashion trendsetters whom their fans tried to emulate. Well-dressed young men might wear golfing knickers and a sweater or loose white flannel trousers and V-necked sweater vests over a collared shirt, whether or not they played golf or tennis” (Drowne & Huber, 2004, p.115). In fact when aviator Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight, young men took to wearing aviation goggles and leather jackets when riding around in cars in imitation of this public figure (Drowne & Huber, 2004). There has been a strong and consistent history of sports athletes as models and inspirational figures for men’s fashion. For example, in the 1970s, “Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath both became clothing models and spokesmen. Palmer took the lead in a series of underwear ads for Jockey, including ads for bikini style underwear, often in bright colors. So long tighty-whiteys. Namath was known for wearing a full-length fur coat on the sidelines, a practice adopted by several other players at the time and subsequently prohibited by the NFL” (Smiler, 2013, p.45).
However, the celebrity endorsement created by Michael Jordan upon the Air Jordan sneaker completely transcends simply the connection between a sports star and a brand: Nike leveraged the mythology which orbited around Michael Jordan to create a mythology around the sneaker they were trying to sell. And they have successfully managed that mythology and the legacy which has grown out of it for almost thirty years. In 1984, the year that Michael Jordan signed that game-changing endorsement deal with Nike, Nike was a struggling to compete in the shoe industry, losing steam from their angle in the running division, they sorely needed to reinvent themselves and saw some promise in Jordan as a means of allowing that to occur (soleredemption, 2006). While Michael Jordan was more interested in aligning with Converse or Adidas, the timing wasn’t right; Jordan’s agent saw the promise in Nike’s offer, seeing that it was an opportunity for an entire shoe to be based around his client (soleredemption, 2006). Michael Jordan agreed to go to Portland Oregon to the Nike company headquarters for a presentation, and ended up signing with the company, though he later said he had no intention of doing so. The “Air Jordan is part of Nike’s plan to market an air-sole shoe to challenge Converse, long the leader in the gym shoe segment of the market (Raismann, 1984). In 1984 Nike transferred a lion’s share of their advertising budget into one pre-eminent multimillion dollar five-year deal, an agreement sealed before Jordan’s rookie year in the National Basketball Association (Johnston, 2001, p.154). One could argue that so much of this partnership involved Nike taking bold strategic risks: they were completely retooling their budget, and blowing a huge wad not just on advertising, but on an advertising regime which centered on a very promising young player, but a player who was still very much a rookie in the NBA.
As most scholars of fashion, sports apparel, sports, and pop culture will agree, the results completely and absolutely revolutionized the sports industry and the athletic shoe industry. So much of the wild, unbridled success had to do with Nike’s effective leveraging of the formidable talent of Michael Jordan in conjunction with their shoe campaign. “Hence, during 1985 the first Air Jordan commercial was aired, a slot entitled ‘Jordan Flight’ in which a slow motion Jordan executed a dunk on an urban playground to the sound of jet engines accelerating take off. With this commercial, and especially its parting salvo, ‘Who said a man was not meant to fly?’ Michael Jordan’s identity was constituted in the minds of the American populace as Air Jordan, the Nike guy who could fly” (Andrews, 2001, p.124). This example demonstrates without a doubt that the advertising team at Nike knew how to succinctly and deftly capitalize on that fact that their celebrity endorser had this extraordinary talent. One could argue that Nike helped to increase the fame and status of Michael Jordan because in having him promote their shoes, they promoted his outstanding athletic ability. One could also argue that the shoe immediately gained a subversive quality, something that Nike was also to immediately leverage. The shoes were quickly banned by the NBA, but Jordan wore them to every game, being fined up to $5,000 dollars a game; Nike was more than happy to pay these fines (soleredemption, 2006). In fact, Nike was clever enough to use this banning of these shoes as another means of leveraging the marketing scheme: “One commercial was created as a response to the NBA’s ‘uniformity of uniform’ clause when commissioner David Stern banned the original red and black Technicolor Nike Air Jordan shoes. The voiceover states: ‘On October 18, the NBA banned Michael Jordan from wearing these shoes. But the NBA can’t stop you from buying these shoes. Air Jordan. Basketball by Nike” (Johnston, 2001, p.154). This commercial lucidly demonstrates how Nike wasn’t afraid to market these shoes as slightly renegade — different and distinctive, as unique and somewhat rebellious as the superstar that was endorsing them. All in all, from focusing on Jordan’s perceived ability to fly, to Jordan’s nearly subversive young talent, Nike consistently know how to publicize, highlight and spin the advantages surrounding this remarkable talent and the remarkable shoe.
In fact, as some scholars of pop culture have argued, Nike’s advertising campaign was so tight and so successfully and precisely capitalized on Jordan’s talent and otherworldly ability, the shoe became more than a shoe; it became something sacred (Aaker & Biel, 1993, p.104). Aaker and Biel argue that Air Jordans, similar to religious artifacts, serve a symbolic function in a secular sense: “Transcendence of the desperate conditions of inner city slums and association with a glamorous star athlete. Membership in an exclusive, elite privileged club of those who own “the best” — something that not just anyone can have. To wear Nike Air Jordans was to reify a sacred experience. It was a vehicle to feeling as if one were the hero figure, Michael Jordan” (Aaker & Biel, 1993, p.105). This excerpt demonstrates the extreme length of effectiveness of the complex and truly multi-faceted marketing campaign launched by Nike.
In conclusion, professional athletes have long exerted a strong influence over men’s fashion and sports apparel. However, the case of Air Jordans represents a shoe where a celebrity endorsement truly revolutionized the product, the celebrity and the entire athletic shoe industry. Nike took a highly calculated and highly strategic risk when they started courting Michael Jordan and when they used such a tremendous bulk of their advertising budget on this particular campaign. However, their strategy paid off: they successfully created a mystique and cultural mythology around both the sneaker and the athlete.
Aaker, D., & Biel, a. (1993). Brand Equity & Advertising: Advertising’s Role in Building Strong Brands. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Andrews, D. (2001). Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America. Albany: SUNY Albany.
Johnston, J. (2001). The American Body in Context: An Anthology. Willmington: Scholarly Press.
Kathleen Morgan Drowne, P.H. (2004). The 1920’s. Westport: Greenwood Publishing.
Smiler, a. (2012). Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Soleredemption.com. (2006). History of the Air Jordan. Retrieved from Soleredemption.com: http://www.soleredemption.com/air-jordan-history/
Steinberg, S., & Kehler, M. (2010). Boy Culture: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
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