Reebok robs the cradle.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 9 2003 10:57 AM

The Littlest Endorser

Reebok robs the cradle.

And you thought LeBron was too young for a shoe deal!
And you thought LeBron was too young for a shoe deal!

Some people thought it was a little over the top when Nike signed 18-year-old basketball player LeBron James to a $90 million endorsement deal. Others thought it was a bit too much when the shoemaker followed up just days later with the announcement that it had struck a $1 million contract with a soccer player named Freddy Adu, who is 13. But Reebok had the most interesting response to its rival's teen fixation: a new marketing campaign built around Mark Walker, who may or may not be "the future of basketball." Mark Walker is 3 years old.

You can see the young Walker (no relation) in action in a TV spot and other clips at this Reebok site. In one clip the child, who seems to be in a garage, clutches a basketball, rears back, and hurls it over his head with both hands into a basket, 18 times in a row. He counts out the shots in a diminutive voice. Another clip shows him as a diapered 21-month-old making baskets into a toy hoop, and then, at age 3, shooting into a rim set at 10 feet while his off-camera mother chirps, "Good shot, sweetie." And in another clip, he cutely tells the camera that his favorite foods are macaroni and hot dogs and that his favorite hoops stars are Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. His last comment is a little less cute: With big, innocent eyes, he looks into the lens and says, "I am Reebok."

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It seemed plausible to me that this was a satire on Nike's hunger for young athletes whose most notable achievement to date is a seven- or eight-figure endorsement deal. But apparently not. Instead the new campaign is grounded in "the fascination we all have with child prodigies," or at least that's what Reebok's marketing chief told USA Today. The story goes that Walker's parents sent a videotape of their son in action to Reebok, presumably hoping that something just like this would happen. (Reebok is said to be setting up a college trust fund for little Mark.) The shoe-sellers were entranced, and a campaign was born. The Web page with Walker's highlight reels also contains a solicitation for the parents of other "young sensations" to send a tape or write of their child's "special skills" and/or "superior abilities."

Obviously, all of this has nothing to do with athletic ability, so I'm going skip the ludicrous debate over whether this child will make it to the NBA some day. It does have something to do with the voyeuristic impulses that feed reality television, and even more to do with the basic marketer's instinct for hype. Watching the 3-year-old's performances, you can't help but wonder about the parents, always at the ready with their video camera and a few words of chipper exhortation. In the past, such parents may have sought out a cash-prize talent contest to convert their "prodigy" spawn's curious ability into currency. Or maybe reached for some reflected glory on the local news. There's no reason to bother with that stuff anymore, and these parents were savvy enough to offer their fealty to the only power and authority that matters—a big consumer-products company, c/o the marketing department.

A 3-year-old saying "I am Reebok" strikes me as just about the creepiest and most disheartening image that a company could possibly offer to society. But I suspect that many viewers will have a different reaction—more along the lines of, "I want in on that. My boy can be Reebok, too." Children will probably be entranced, too, and that Reebok exec has already floated the hope that this gambit might lead to the company "doing original TV content with kids." Fantastic! I hope that this "content" offers valuable lessons to all the little ones out there. Like, "Merit is its own reward—but see what you can do in the way of endorsements."

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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