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Of all of the commercials Michael Jordan had done for Nike, Inc., he was most proud of the 1997 spot that took a glimpse at his humanness. The commercial, filmed in a nine-hour shoot at Soldier Field in Chicago, showed a well-dressed Jordan exiting his limousine and strolling past banks of fans, humbly acknowledging the custodians and security workers along the way. Amid these outward signs of success, Jordan's voice-over revealed his inner thoughts: "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot—and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life." Such self-doubt seemed unthinkable from perhaps the greatest basketball player ever, until the camera showed Jordan heading into the locker room and the voice-over added one last thought: "And that is why I succeed."
Jordan began his relationship with Nike in 1985, his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in the National Basketball Association. He carried with him extraordinary fame dating to "the shot," his game winner as a freshman when the University of North Carolina captured the 1982 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title against Georgetown. David Falk, Jordan's agent, invited shoe companies to court his client. Nike was struggling at the time, but Jordan fit the strategy on which Philip Knight had founded his company—to market products in the glow of the limelight surrounding maverick sports stars. Nike offered the 22-year-old Jordan the largest basketball endorsement to that time, $2.5 million plus royalties over five years. In a compromise over the brand name, Nike fused the company's new technology with the player's high-flying reputation, resulting in Air Jordan. The investment proved to be a wise one, as the Air Jordan line of athletic shoes and apparel garnered $130 million in revenues within its first year, stabilizing Nike and in fact turning the company around to take back the lead from Reebok in the sporting shoes market by 1990.
Nike's marketing of Jordan became legendary and transformed the mechanics of advertising. The creative directors and writers at Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, redefined advertising techniques with several risky but ultimately successful strategies. They experimented with black-and-white commercials; they diverted attention from the product itself, focusing instead on the image the product could create for its owner; and they employed renowned and expensive directors like Spike Lee. They even created such widespread brand recognition that they eventually removed the company name from the ads, replacing it with one of their trademarks—the Nike swoosh, an air-bound silhouette of Jordan, or the Nike credo "Just Do It."
Jordan's inaugural commercial for Nike featured a slow-motion shot of a jump from the foul line for a dunk, accompanied by a sound track of a jet taking off.
Nike also advertised in this heroic vein with its "Frozen Moment" spot, which shifted back and forth between stills of Jordan in flight toward the basket and stills of faces in the crowd, their jaws agape in awe at his apparently superhuman skill. Jordan admired the "9,000 Shots" spot because it humanized him, sending the message that his fallibility was an inherent component of his success. Air Jordans could not endow their wearers with Jordan's abilities, but "9,000 Shots" pointed out that anyone could achieve success by accepting failure.
Knight had founded Nike on the vision of a Michael Jordan. In a 1998 speech Knight traced the company's genesis to the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant, from which he had distributed imported track shoes made by the Onitsuka Company of Kobe, Japan, for a $254 profit in 1964. Even then, Knight imagined that the magical aura surrounding star athletes could be transferred to the equipment they wore. Of the factors that made athletes great—talent, skill, timing, dedication, hard work—equipment alone was a commodity. Consumers could access sports greatness by outfitting themselves as their heroes did.
Knight had hit upon a version of what psychologists called "spontaneous trait transference." When a speaker discussed the traits of a thing or a person, in an act of transference the listener attributed the traits to the speaker. Knight shifted this equation, relying on the transference of the spokesperson's traits onto what was being described, namely, Nike shoes. University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine acted as Nike's first sports star spokesperson, handing the torch to other Jordan precursors, including tennis stars John McEnroe and Andre Agassi and basketball star Charles Barkley.
In Jordan, Knight discovered the embodiment of his dreams. He was a sports icon who combined exemplary play with extraordinary character, who established his individualism without resorting to radicalism—an "outlaw with morals," to quote the formula that consultant Watts Wacker helped Knight to hone. By 1990 Jordan's unbelievable abilities, including a penchant for flight and a quick wit, helped catapult Nike, with revenues of $2.24 billion, over Reebok, with revenues of $2.16 billion. At the same time, Nike spent several million dollars promoting Air Jordan within the first years of the line's existence, creating unlimited exposure for Jordan. The situation created a positive feedback loop, what economist Tyler Cowen called the "mutualism of endorsements," whereby the more Nike promoted Jordan, the more famous he became, enabling him to sell ever more products while simultaneously enhancing his own image, visibility, and worth.
Males under 18 years of age accounted for a quarter of all athletic footwear sales in the United States, and the "9,000 Shots" campaign involved the effect on young people's self-esteem of advertising Jordan's inimitable success. Jordan explained the concept of the commercial to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for a profile published in the June 1, 1998, New Yorker: "The idea [was] to tell young kids, 'Don't be afraid to fail, because a lot of people have to fail to be successful—these are the many times that I've failed but yet I've been successful.'" Wieden & Kennedy's Jamie Barrett wrote the commercial without a specific target market in mind. He trusted his gut instinct instead of allowing demographics to determine his angle. The idea he hit on happened to resonate particularly with teens, those in the throes of defining themselves and their personal definitions of success and failure.
Wieden & Kennedy's Jamie Barrett wrote the script for "9,000 Shots" from his personal knowledge of Michael Jordan's career. Off the top of his head he knew Jordan's career points and his approximate shooting percentage, and, applying simple math, he estimated about 8,000-9,000 shots missed. When he later researched the numbers, his guesstimate turned out to be on target. He took more liberty with the number of times Jordan had missed game-winning shots, since such statistics were not recorded. Barrett had to choose between watching every game in Jordan's 13-year career or simply surmising that Jordan had failed to shoot the game winner about twice a season. He opted for the latter. In a press conference a few days after "9,000 Shots" first aired, a reporter pressed Jordan on the statistic. Jordan admitted that he could not be sure, but in typical fashion he confidently responded, "It sounds about right to me."
Nike avoided targeting specific markets, preferring to broaden its appeal across boundaries of age and social status. In this instance Nike realized that insecurity over success continued past the age of 18. Most adults considered their lives less successful than Jordan's, and so this commercial spoke to them too. Jordan specifically wanted the commercial to turn introspective, revealing his motivations and moods. Barrett responded by comparing Jordan's accomplishments to his defeats, thus
urging viewers not to compare their failures to Jordan's successes but rather to consider their failures in light of their own successes.
While "9,000 Shots" implicitly targeted the adult market, its companion commercial, "Challenge Me,"...