Friday, February 22, 2008

Nike, Lebron James, and Jesus: An Unholy Trinity?

Some of you may remember Lebron James' first big Nike ad, where he shows off his basketball skills in a setting that looks like a typical black church:

When I saw this commercial, I was a little troubled by Nike's borrowing of the black church to use as a symbol to sell shoes. That clapping, dancing, and standing up isn't a song-and-dance routine; it's how many black Christians express their love and devotion to Jesus. On one level, it could be seen as Nike telling young black Christians to shift their allegiances to Lebron. However, I figured I was reading too much into the commercial, and moved on.

Next came the Witness commercial with the tagline "We are all witnesses".

Where does that tagline come from, you might ask? It's a near-direct quote from Acts 3 of the Bible, which refers to the disciples being witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.

You might argue that that's a mere coincidence...but note the end of the commercial above. It says "Believe at" Why did they choose the word "believe"? Why not "watch" or "enjoy"? This once again represents a deliberate attempt by Nike to associate Lebron James with Christian imagery. In this case, they are essentially equating Lebron James to be the equal of Jesus Christ. Far out, isn't it? Too crazy to be true! I once again thought I was over-reacting, though. It had to be coincidence, right? But wait, this is the second time Nike has done something like this...

Then, I received my latest copy of SLAM magazine, with a cover story on Lebron James. Inside the magazine's front cover was this ad:

That thought is the exact opposite of Matthew 7:7-8, in which Jesus encourages his followers that he is a generous God who will provide for them. It reads as follows
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

No longer content with treading on the edge of blasphemy to sell shoes and worship the almighty dollar, Nike kicks the church door down with this ad. The first time it's funny, the second time it's creepy, the third time it shows a deep lack of respect for both religion and the customer. It's clear to me that the Nike corporation will steal any religious or racial imagery that could help them sell a few more pairs of shoes. Doubt me? Then take a look at the Nike ad that got banned in China for showing Lebron overcoming Chinese symbols and gods:

Nike is no longer marketing Lebron as an athlete, or even a role model. They are marketing Lebron as a god stronger than your cultural gods, whether they be Jesus or Confucius. I would be upset at this god marketing, but I don't think that Jesus is worrying about the competition's strength until Lebron can muster enough moral authority to sign a petition on Darfur. But that's just me.

Add this latest offense to what Nike's already done in stealing principles from feminism and using images of pit bulls to sell shoes, and there's plenty of reasons for people of any belief system to buy Reebok or Adidas. I have a feeling such an action would be the only ritual or belief that Nike will respect.


  1. Let's not forget the failed "Air Allah" sneakers from the late 90's....

  2. I've always thought that LeBron and Jesus parallels are weird and over-the-top. And they've always been there. Kudos for the post.

    You can also mention that his nickname is the King (like Christ the King) and that he's been annointed the savior (relgious in tone) of a struggling sports city. I think Nike just ran with it. Although, I love the Witness ads. It does have some heavy parallels to Christianity, but I think it's also a powerful word to sum up the experience of watching LeBron on the court.

    The last commercial you show, though was more of a take on the Bruce Lee movie The Game of Death (the one where he fights Kareem) than a blatant slap in the face of Chinese religions. That one was a bit of a stretch in your argument.

  3. Is there a more self-absorbed world than that of athletic shoe marketing? I'm imagining that maybe a few christians are behind these campaigns, thinking they are doing something good by using christian symbolism in the commercials.

    Of course for many Americans, corporate brand names are practically a religion. See if you dig up "I Cannot Possibly Be Poor" at The Onion archives for a parody.

  4. I'm just not sure I buy it. The argument can definitely be made in the case of the first ad (Bernie Mac), which is an obvious play on African American Baptism. The "Witness" advertisements may borrow from Christianity as jason nolfi said above, but are you really sold on the idea that Nike insists on elevating LeBron to the level of a god "stronger than your cultural gods?" The idea of presenting LeBron as a savior or a hero is in no way Christian, and in no way puts him on par or attempts to put him on par with Jesus. The fact that we are all "witnesses" is somewhat tied to the whole "Second Coming" scheme that Nike has put out. A second coming -- not of Jesus, or the messiah, or of whatever deity you believe will return -- but an obvious play on a return to the greatness of Jordan. I think the biggest hole in your argument is introducing this "Game of Death" ad, which really has more to do (once again, as jason nolfi pointed out quite precisely) with the film than it does with religion. If you have qualms about the representations of this advertisement, perhaps you should approach the implications of Bruce Lee films rather than Nike commercials. But that's neither here, nor there. The temptations LeBron faces in the commercial are classic symbols actually more identified with a seemingly American (although perhaps has spread on a semi-global scale) idea of male success: overcoming hype and doubt, the temptation of money, material items, and women, and overcoming doubt you have within yourself and attaining a "killer instinct." Religious association? Probably not. Product of American culture? Obviously (I mean, it is Nike).

    Anyway, just some thoughts -- a compelling idea for a post.

  5. Wait, so Lebron ISN'T Jesus?


  6. You forget to mention his nickname is King James.

  7. good thoughts. enjoyed reading them.

  8. Some really good points here, guys, and let me try to do my best to answer them.

    Jason Nolfi, I think what's weird about this is how Nike is speaking in "code". For example, I don't notice anything disrespectful about the Chinese ad either. But the Chinese government was angry and banned the ad from Chinese TV. (Read the link for more info). Apparently they saw the ad as symbolizing a triumph of the American Lebron over Chinese symbols of power.

    The question is, why is Nike using these "codes" that are nearly meaningless if you don't have a background in the religion/culture that Nike is borrowing from? And that leads me to Rob's comment. Rob, you're right, the tough part is discerning why exactly Nike feels compelled to borrow symbolism from other cultures/ideas/religions for their commercials. It's one thing to prove that the borrowing is taking place. It's another thing to try to identify motive. Why is Nike using the inside of a black church when that imagery has little meaning to someone who has never been to a black church? I'm not really sure. But to me, my first thought was that Nike is trying to borrow the language of a culture to give their shoes social legitimacy. To some extent, that's an accepted advertising practice (i.e. picking up hot women used to sell beer, etc.).

    But if that's true, than why is Nike deliberately going against those symbols in some of the ads? (Lebron overcomes Chinese symbols, says "Ask and you will receive nothing", etc.). I'm putting forth the hypothesis that Nike is attempting "god marketing". However, perhaps there's another storyline that I'm missing.

    And with that long stretch of blabbermouth, sorry, I'm out of words for the other respondents, ha. Thanks anyway for commenting and showing you read the site.

  9. i think people read too far into this...there aren't lines to be read in between, it is simply an ad campaign showing lebron's superiority in the game of basketball...the "witness" commercials and shirts just show how monumental and relevant lebron is to the sport of basketball, its ridiculous to construe the idea that they are comparing him to god...and even if they were, who cares? i love the ads, they are very creative and entertaining, much more so than other sneaker commercials, i could care less what kind of symbol they wish to make lebron into, god would realize we are all just human, humans make mistakes which you are already forgiven for, so let it be and just enjoy the ads for what they are instead of scrutinizing them

  10. It was all to make something funny, duh, in the ad industry no one cares about religions or faiths, they might acknowledge its similarity but they jus did these ads cause it seemed funny as a parody or cool cause it is like LeBron is becomin more of a star jus by playin his game, the first one is of a parody like the blues brothers movie, u should kno that, and im sure they dont care if it wasnt the best idea, they can always come out wit the better ideas later, its Lebron James, hes gettin better everyday,and hes building a legacy in ads and on the court, but he'll never be Jordan, no matter how hard he tries. like rob said,(which is awkardly funny cause my name is rob too) Religious association? definitely not,
    A push to make more money because they're spokesperson keeps gettin bigger everyday? definitely. A few ads to make someone laugh while, changin minds to think, this new player is goin to make a huge impact? yes bottom line

  11. William, Nike's so good, though, that I know they don't have to use these images to sell their shoes. Why not more commercials with the 4Lebrons? I love those guys. I'm not asking Nike to stop making commercials; I'm just asking them to take it easy with borrowing storylines from Christians/feminists/blacks/everyone.

    It's a Rob conspiracy! All the Robs of the world are out to get me! ha. Similar reply as what I told William--Nike is GREAT at making commercials. You can't tell me that they don't have better/bigger ideas than this. I wouldn't be so annoyed if this was some little company like But this is NIKE, the people who did the Jordan commercials--I expect MUCH better from them. Be original, Nike.

  12. Oh, and of course, thanks for taking the time to comment and being polite about it! It's good to hear the other side of the story too. That's why I love blogs; it's a two-way conversation, not just one person imposing their opinion on readers.

  13. I can confim that your assumptions of 'god marketing' are true to an extent. The LeBron ads were created by R/GA New York, by a team of 6 advertisers who recognised the powerful connotations of using biblical references in Nike campaigns. LeBron is revered within Nike Inc, and all I can say is keep watching for the next campaign which will push the boundaries of acceptability to new heights.

    I know this because I am one of those who works on the campaigns.

  14. Thanks for the confirmation, Peter.

  15. Thanks for the sick video links. Your opinions happen to blow.

  16. So Peter acknowledges that Nike and their employees and representatives have no fear of God and consequently, dishonoring Him is not something they care to avoid.

    If the Black Church feared God as they should, they would give Nike a backlash that would make Nike fear falling sales, but the Black Church is everyone's fool except white businessmen (that Jesse tells them to oppose) and white politicians.

  17. As evidence of my last remark, just consider that we have a muslim president who the Black Church put in office.

    No one with an honest bone in his body would argue they didn't play Obama's fool there.

    Obama is a pawn and a tool of the wealthy and powerful and "a brother" he might be to islam, but not to black Christians, being the ONLY president in our history to say to our enemies, "We're not a Christian nation," contradicting our first national document, our history, our traditions, facts, and even the Supreme Court.

    The Black Church didn't just play the fool for this man -- they couldn't have played a bigger fool.

  18. Simple post but great expression of thoughts.. how do you do that? i think your a veteran blogger! am i right?

    anyway I'm william
    mind if I put a link back to you?

    (clickable) ------> Black Suit