Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On LeBron, Nike, and the Deconstruction of America

You've probably never heard of Jim Riswold,* but I could make a case that he's one of the most influential figures in modern sports. Riswold is an ad-man--or at least, he was; now he's a really clever pop artist--and in the 1980s, he worked at Wieden and Kennedy, the Portland firm outsourced by Nike to devise its ad campaigns. It was Riswold who came up with the idea to marry Spike Lee and Michael Jordan; it was Riswold who came up with the catchphrase "Bo Knows." It was Riswold who helped shape and define athletes through commercial imagery, and sell a generation on both shoes and subversiveness; it was Riswold who would admit to me, years later, that he essentially created a monster.

I thought of Riswold when I watched this new LeBron James advertisement. It is an homage to the work he did; it is the natural descendent of this utterly brilliant Bo Knows ad from 1992, when Bo, rehabbing from injury, faced the inevitable end of his career. At that point, the notion of an athlete deconstructing his own career in his own advertisement seemed subversive to the point of mutiny; there's a moment in that ad when Bo actually stares down the logo of the shoe he's trying to sell. In 1992, that was unheard of. In 1992, this was the closest Nike could come to rebelling against itself, and what company in its right mind would do that?

Now, of course, all we do is deconstruct. Most of us don't actually believe LeBron James to be a terrible person; we just think he made a terrible PR decision, which, in this day and age, seems to be almost as inexcusable an error as actually doing something terrible. This is how we see things now. Turn on any cable station and tell me how much time they spend judging the political effectiveness of any given campaign's image versus the actions proposed by any given candidate. It's the reason Chris Matthews has a career.

Which is why an international conglomerate like Nike, and an international brand like LeBron, can get away with a commercial like this. It's because men like Jim Riswold, unwittingly or not, set us on this path, of athletes become constructs, and of us becoming as interested in the construct as we are in the people themselves. "What should I do?" LeBron asks, and these days, everyone has an answer to that question. These days, the best way to rebel is to stare down your own image.

*Unless you happened to somehow come across this book.

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