The Corbin Smith Review of Michael Jordan Commercials, Vol. 1: MJ’s Head as a Hyperreal Planet

In addition to being the greatest basketball player who ever lived (apologies to Kareem), Michael Jordan also was, is, and will always be the greatest commercial pitchman of all time. Underwear, Sport Drinks, Soft Drinks, high-end tequila, sneakers, F-35s, the list goes on. You name it, MJ could hock it. In this series of posts for RoundballRock.net, the author will spend some time observing and dissecting one of the many commercials His Airness has graced us with during his time on their beautiful blue planet. 

Today, we discuss a 1996 commercial for Gatorade, a sports drink invented by a college football coach.

Having consumed a plethora of anecdotes about Michael Jordan, many of his commercials end up seeming like lies, in retrospect. For instance: this spot, where we see a bunch of people playing sports on top of MJ’s head. There is absolutely no way, in real life, that the all time ultimate alpha would tolerate people doing sports on his dome, operating as a Super Mario Galaxy mini-planet. 

But whatever, Michael didn’t care. In the 1990’s, when he was the most dominant athlete imaginable, the famous person on the planet and a compartmentalizer of the highest order, Jordan could project basically anything a company needed to. He could be funny, he could be kind, he could be cool, he could be Bugs Bunny – it didnt fucking matter, Only when he got older and subjected himself to personal observation, did he end up reforming himself into his current manifestion, an untouchable dude who was driven by the pursuit of greatness and all that shit: Silhouette Jordan, the icon made flesh.

This particular spot is pure 1996. It features people playing sports and having fun, a construct we left behind when the Twin Towers got destroyed. 9/11 made sports into work. It’s why Kobe excelled during the Bush administration, because he was a joyless copycat who was primarily fueled by abstract notions of greatness,copping recognition, and earning his distant father’s love, much like George W. Bush. 

I know he’s dead now and making fun of him makes people go hey c’mon man he was a father of daughters. But you know who else was a father of daughters? George W. Bush. 

2002 WCF, when corrupt officials handed him a wholly unearned victory? Bush V. Gore.

The years when his team sucked because he ran Shaq out of town? Iraq War. 

MVP Season where he lost in the Finals? Mission accomplished sign. 

Two titles with the extraordinary help of Pau Gasol? Him giving Michelle Obama candy that one time. 

If Kobe was George Bush, it stands to reason that MJ was Clinton*, a charmer who didn’t take himself too seriously in public, all while cutting nuts and accepting drastic compromises once the cameras were off. MJ was even more accomplished than Slick WIllie, because he progressed the cause of his sport instead of letting it lull into a neoliberal mire that would come back to bite us in the ass in the near future. He also wasn’t tragically horny, except in the matter of victory.

The commercial is terribly colorful. It evokes the memory of an ad in an issue of Disney Adventures, a publication that I read with obscene loyalty around this time. Bright, but not pastel or Sirk-y, more like pure neon transmuted onto video. There was a time when this was the vision of the future, I presume, before the Bush Administration demanded that all color be purged from everything and coordinated 9/11 to make sure the job was done forever. 

These colors are the product of video artist and stop motion animator Osbert Parker’s vision, a loud neon world made manifest on the man of the decade’s head. Soon, this loud, bright collage of styles would fall out of vogue, dominated by austerity and computer animation in equal measure. You can also feel the neon vibes in this commercial he directed for Hi-C:

It also features a neat little drum machine beat and a looping sample of MJ saying “Gatorade/Gatorade— drink it up.” 

MJ’s sports planet head is sweaty. Not a decision I would have made, just because considering people walking around in little puddles of MJ’s sweat is kind of upsetting to me. I suspect you would only be unnerved by this if you were thinking too hard about the commercial, though. But beads of sweat on MJ’s bald ass head were part of the whole aesthetic, a small thing that evoked a subtextual evocation of the man on the basketball court, in the middle of this ad. It’s like how you remember very slight, specific details about your former lovers while losing the whole picture altogether over time. 

Jordan watches all these activities with bemused eyes, as if to say, hey, it’s mad silly these people are gaming on my head, but I’m OK with it. In a way, with his head being a planet and the people doing sports being denizens of that planet, Jordan is a kind of observational, passive god figure here. During this time, that’s what he was. His face and eyes everywhere, watching you while he silently observes with superhuman detachment, like the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg. Over the years, we could discover he wasn’t actually all that detached, but this part of himself was useless to him at the time. Athletes weren’t celebrated for being neurotic freaks until America was drained of optimism and made to believe that the only way to get or do anything was to will yourself to victory. 

*Lebron, of course, is Obama. Wunderkind, lots of hype, didn’t change the world quite as much as anyone wanted him to. Trump is Devin Booker. 

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