When NBA star Allen Iverson was hit with criminal charges for allegedly brandishing a gun and forcing his way into a cousin's apartment last month, Reebok stood behind its spokesman. Almost immediately, some observers wondered if the whole imbroglio wouldn't actually help Reebok, on the theory that the Philadelphia 76er got "bad boy" points as a result of the incident. It certainly made me more curious about how Iverson comes across in ads for the Reebok shoe he touts. Here's an Iverson-Reebok TV spot, via Ads.com.
The ad: Iverson is joined on the court by rap artist Jadakiss, who delivers a set of lyrics touting "the new A5s" and insisting that "you gotta rock 'em." The only instrumentation is ball-bouncing, shoe-squeaking, and a sort of electronic hand-clap beat. The visuals, all in black and white, consist mostly of Iverson handling the ball, dunking, and, toward the end, staring into the camera; there are also some product shots and miscellaneous appearances by Jadakiss as he raps. "All you need is a pair of these, nothin' else," he advises. "Even on the court we stay fly, Jada and A.I. Make sure you go get the A5s." That reference to "A.I." is the closest he comes to actually saying Iverson's name—part of the point of an ad like this is that you already know who the guy is. If you have to ask, you're not cool enough to buy the shoes anyway.
Dangerous rep: Just how much might an unsavory reputation enhance sales? What if somebody signed up Sammy "the Bull" Gravano as a spokesthug, for example? It's actually possible that, paired with the right "edgy" product, the admitted murderer would boost sales. But we'll probably never know. Companies steer away from true thugs—as opposed to virtual ones—for reasons having to do with corporate reputation, not sales figures. At this point, for instance, nobody is going to say, "Hey, bad guys are in; let's get Mike Tyson to endorse our product."
Now, in Iverson's case, events have turned very much to Reebok's advantage. The Iverson shoe is already doing well for the firm, which recently announced improved second-quarter numbers. But to the extent this was attributable to Iverson, it's not because his image is "the bad boy."
Yes, he has the credibility to hang out with a rap star, and yes he looks vaguely fierce in his Reebok TV ad. But Iverson's real image is "the misunderstood underdog." The underdog part is obvious. His national profile exploded during the 2001 NBA playoffs, when his endless clutch shots, tireless play, and never-surrender court demeanor helped the Sixers win many games and made the team a palatable alternative to the boringly outstanding Lakers. Then there's the misunderstood thing. Iverson gives the impression of someone who has been relentlessly hassled, bullied, and pushed around—always accused by the Man of doing something that he didn't do. Just look at Reebok's print ads showing the many sides of Iverson—the player-haters say he's a selfish brooder, but in fact he's deep and complex. And really, can you come up with a more thoroughly American identity than that? He's an individual, a rebel, whatever cliché you want—a guy who beats the odds.
It's because of all this that the resolution to the gun-waving case couldn't be more perfect: A judge threw out almost all the charges against him. See? Society was conspiring against our hero again. They try to keep him down—and they can't! He's the underdog, but he never gives up! Allen Iverson is America! So, just buy the shoes, OK?
Update—Mac attacks: Lots of e-mail came in in response to last week's item on the Apple "switch" ads, most of it simply in the form of computer partisanships—Mac fans attacking the PC, PC users slamming all things Apple. One noteworthy contribution was this amusing satire of the campaign, suggesting that the previously discussed charges of clueless elitism are definitely in the air. Even funnier is this parody (shown in QuickTime), sure to be appreciated by those of you who use your PC for games. A second point, and one that I should have made, is that the ads' claims that Macs "never" crash is, well, not consistent with my experience. But I'll still take a Mac over a PC any day.