Yesterday, when LeBron James tweeted his new Nike commercial, called “Rise,” it got more positive feedback than anything James has done since winning second MVP. People on Twitter loved it (if you didn’t know this, LeBron himself took the liberty of retweeting practically every good thing said about the ad), Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon both called it “brilliant” on Pardon the Interruption, and the Internet went crazy praising it as the first positive step in the rehabilitation of LeBron’s image.
“Rise” certainly is another example of Nike grasping the nuance behind a sponsor’s public image (something I was in the minority in seeing in April’s Tiger Woods ad). In 90 seconds, the ad manages to touch on LeBron’s Decision, the fallout, the betrayal felt in Cleveland, the criticisms he took from Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, his new role as the NBA’s Bad Guy, the attacks on LeBron’s “handlers” this season, his infamous “mental notes,” and the drop in his celebrity value, among other things.* It’s impressively comprehensive for one ad.
*It shouldn’t be lost in all this that the ad also includes the new Nike Air Max LeBron VIII shoes, albeit in a sly, self-deprecating way: LeBron playfully says, “Wanna see my shiny new shoes? Should I just sell shoes?” in an ad in which he is, of course, ultimately selling shoes.
The ad is also quite funny, with humor ranging from the broad—like Don Johnson’s cameo as LeBron’s co-star in a hypothetical Miami Vice remake—to the more subtle and biting—like LeBron standing in front of an empty Hall of Fame banquet muttering, “So, this went well…” in an allusion to Jordan’s disastrous 2009 Hall of Fame speech. The ad ends with LeBron asking, “Should I be who you want me to be?” in an attempt to point to the unfair demands of LeBron’s fans.
And while parts of this ad are incisive, particularly the digs at Jordan and Barkley, overall it only serves to illustrate how pathetic LeBron’s current situation is. The thesis of the commercial—that LeBron is his man and therefore not obliged to follow the paths dictated by previous greats or what the fans want for him—is reminiscent of Chuck Klosterman’s analysis from a recent podcast with Bill Simmons: “What if what we’re seeing is real confidence—not what we’ve come to accept as what we think a confident person is like—but what if this is a real kind of confidence that is unrelated to how others perceive them (sic)?” This is exactly what LeBron James would like us to think: that he is simply too confident in his own abilities to care what other people—whether they be fans, owners, teammates, or members of the media—think of him, and that he is only going to listen to himself and his friends and loved ones.
Except that people who think this way tend to not make commercials. The image of LeBron as someone who doesn’t care what people think is totally at odds with the LeBron who wanted to be a “global icon” when he was 23. It’s also at odds with the very things LeBron says earlier in the commercial: After James’ sly dig at Jordan in the banquet hall he turns to the camera and asks, “Should I really believe I ruined my legacy?” The point—that Jordan’s legacy, like LeBron’s, is ultimately determined on the courts and not in banquet halls or speeches or TV specials—is a good one, but you only make a point like this if you are still concerned about your legacy.
A lot of what LeBron would probably like us to interpret as clever commentary in “Rise” merely comes off as excuses. When he drives past a crew taking down the famous “Witness” banner in Cleveland he asks, “Should I tell you how much fun we had?” Surely he wants to remind the audience of the great years he had in Cleveland, but it sounds like he’s saying, “Weren’t those seven great years enough?” when of course every Cleveland fan who is still without a championship knows that the answer is “Not even close.” Similarly, when he later asks, “Should I stop listening to my friends? They’re my friends…” he probably wants us to see whose opinions really matter to him, but he sounds like a kid after getting a lecture about peer pressure.
Even the very question LeBron repeats throughout the commercial—“What should I do?”—doesn’t really land the way it’s supposed to. He wants us to realize that someone as skilled and talented as LeBron doesn’t need to ask his fans something like that. But even after all the commercial packs into 90 seconds, it sounds like he’s only asking because he still doesn’t know.