First posted at thenation.com
There are certain phrases so imbued with history, their mere recitation evokes a reaction. To hear the words "I have a dream" or "we shall not be moved" is to be involuntarily flooded with awe. For an advertising executive, the operative emotion is not awe but opportunity: these are just phrases waiting to become slogans and the moment does not exist that's too sacred to be used to move merchandise.
No company is more effective at bleeding history of its content and turning into a brand, than the ad-people at Nike. These are the folks who gave us the "I am Tiger Woods" ads, drawing on the expression of ancient slave solidarity, "I am Spartacus" and turned the Beatles Revolution into a jingle. Well, Nike is at it again with Lebron James's heavily hyped new sneaker ad. The commercial shows James suffering -- at times comically, at times plaintively -- over the way his image has taken a beating since his free agent exit from the Cleveland Cavaliers. It ends with James saying defiantly, "Do I have to be who you want me to be?" Then comes the swoosh and we fade to black.
The ad is slick, butter-smooth, and would make a Mad Man proud. It's also, as Kevin Blackistone of AOL Sports wrote, "a desecration." Lebron and Nike's new slogan is a play on a famous phrase by the great Muhammad Ali who forty-five years earlier said, "I know where I'm going and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be."
Ali didn't say these words because he was mourning the loss of his brand power. He said it because he was suffering the consequences of his own political principles and wanted to make it clear that he couldn't be broken. Ali had turned his back on not just white society but the mainstream civil rights movement by joining the Nation of Islam. He then chose to become the most famous draft resistor in US history by refusing to fight in Vietnam.
That phrase, "I don't have to be what you want me to be," perfectly symbolizes a radical time when familiar roles were being turned on their heads. Ali was a boxer who hated war. He was a black separatist who earned the affections of Dr. King. As the Champ, he was supposed to be violent, inarticulate, and proudly patriotic. He chose to be none of that. He faced down death threats and federal prison and paid a tremendous price, not least of which was near-universal scorn.
On the question of near-universal scorn, Lebron does in fact have something in common with Ali. The reigning Most Valuable Player has gone from beloved to bad guy because he dared do things his own way. He exercised his rights of free agency, leaving his hometown team to play with his friends in Miami for less money. In the process, he incensed the owners, their mouthpieces in the press, assorted NBA legends, and a multitude of basketball fans. When James raised the issue of whether racism might have something to do with the reaction , much of the media roared in disapproval. It's certainly understandable why he'd beseechingly ask the question: "Do I have to be who you want me to be?"
Lebron has in the past expressed his admiration of Ali. This ad, though, is like expressing your admiration for Dr. King by launching "I Have A Dream Cereal" or a laxative called "We Shall Not Be Moved." The ad-geniuses at Nike are sending a message that they are attempting to deliver Lebron from a fate worse than federal prison or even death: commercial irrelevance.
Ali was defined by defiance. His quote "I don't have to be want you want me to be" was a slap in the face to doubters, haters, and even killers in his midst. But in the hands of Nike, the commercial makes Lebron James sound more like a man imprisoned by relentless self-pity. I personally have no idea what I "want Lebron to be." Never thought about it. But after watching the ad, I know what I don't want him to be: the sort of person who would take Ali's sacrifice and courage and put them at the service of selling sneakers.