One can debate all day the relative merits of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O'Neal as basketball players. But apparently there's one area in which Bryant stands especially tall: endorsements. The Wall Street Journal, in a piece last week mulling over the potential for Iverson to convert his soaring popularity into a wider array of pitchman deals (he currently shills for Reebok and Sega), noted that the "urbane" Bryant is perhaps the only current player to have a Michael Jordan-like "broad portfolio" of endorsement deals, with Adidas, Coke, McDonald's, Mattel, Spalding, Nintendo, and Mercedes. This apparently overshadows even Shaq, who, the Journal notes, is not the pitch maniac he used to be. (On the other hand, Shaq is probably still the most insistent promoter of himself, across the most media, with films, albums, and his own Web site, where the most amusing, and creepy, feature is the "Shaq Morph" page.)
I don't have the time, space, or attention span to review Bryant's full ad oeuvre here, so I'll just focus on his spots for Adidas, which produces a shoe called "The Kobe"; these aren't exactly brand-new, but a couple of them popped up during Episode 3 of the NBA finals last night, so they seem like fair game. Those spots can be viewed on this Adidas page, where they're labeled "Speed" and "Style" (you can just ignore the "behind the scenes quiz" that Adidas appends to each ad).
Kobe as motorcycle maniac: A guy dressed in a black leather bodysuit, his face obscured by a dark helmet, zooms along a mountain road. Suddenly he's in traffic. Solution: He travels between lanes, blowing past everybody. He weaves, he leaps, he disregards a yellow light. He arrives at the Staples Center. He is ... Kobe. We get a shot of his signature shoe. "Adidas: Forever Sport" is the tag line.
I find this ad to be incredibly limp. Maybe Bryant considers himself a gutsy daredevil, but no one else does. And why would he, or Adidas, want to push this angle anyway? A while ago, I got a note from a reader complaining that speeding and running lights isn't exactly in line with Bryant's pious role-model image (on display in another ad last night, in which he plays basketball with children on behalf of McDonald's). I don't know if that's really a serious concern or not, but maybe the more important point is that Kobe the Wild One just doesn't wash, and if it says anything about the shoes, it's that they're for poseurs. Give it a D.
Kobe as stylish fellow: Here we have Bryant at home, I guess, or in any case in a highly stylish homelike setting. The camera angle is static. He seems to be waiting around for someone or something and starts killing time by shooting baskets into a trash can, giving a running patter in which he imagines himself taking pressure shots in Game 7. This spot works better: The message is that Kobe (and presumably The Kobe) is not only stylish, but down-to-earth, a regular guy who daydreams like anyone else but also just so happens to have the real-world skills to live out those same dreams.
One problem: There's something oddly familiar in the tone and pacing of the ad, and it took me a while to figure it out. But it's this—the ad feels like a Nike commercial. I'm not sure how Adidas can solve this problem, but it's a big one. (Earlier I wrote about a Reebok ad that, I think, finally made a real impression for that shoe company; but in the same column, I heaped even greater praise on a recent Nike ad. Whatever you think of Nike as a company or a product, it remains the 800-pound gorilla of show marketing.) Can Adidas really be penalized for this? Yes, but only a little. B-minus.
More, more, more Kobe: There are two other spots on the site. One is set in a picturesque Milan backdrop (Bryant famously grew up partly in Italy) and features the Laker musing aloud about creativity. It's completely insufferable and makes the viewer yearn for this fool to shut his yap. A flat F. In the other, he plays hoops with some Italians in a picturesque gym, trash-talking in Italian. So cosmopolitan! This ad is attention-getting and surprising, doing a reasonable job of walking the line between Worldly Kobe and the idea that he can walk his talk, whatever the language. So give that one a B.
So adding all this up, how does Bryant rate as a pitchman? My Kobe beef would be that at this point his packagers seem to want him to stand for everything—a rebellious, cuddly, unpretentious, high-falutin', one-of-a-kind, regular guy. But not even Bryant's game is that complete. And the upshot is that he doesn't stand for anything specific at all; he's just another successful athlete, selling shoes.
Oh, and go Sixers.