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Loss may swish away Kobe-LeBron ads

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers walks next to LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a game break at Staples Center on January 19, 2009 in Los Angeles, Calif.

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Kai Ryssdal: The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the bubble tonight in their NBA playoff series against Orlando. The Cavs are down three games to one. And if they can't pull it out, Nike and Glaceau VitaminWater would be among the losers too. For months, those two companies have been hyping a hypothetical match-up between Cleveland's LeBron James and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, assuming both teams make it to the NBA Finals. Joel Rose reminds us that advertisers love a good rivalry, even if they have to make one up.


JOEL ROSE: In the VitaminWater ad, fans in L.A. and Cleveland argue back and forth about who's better, LeBron or Kobe.

VitaminWater AD: Inside. Butter! Outside. Handles like a dream! My man is a nightmare to cover...

The ad doesn't mention the NBA Finals by name. But it still sends the message that basketball's two biggest stars are poised to meet on the league's biggest stage for the first time.

PAUL Swangard: That's always what brands are looking for is to be relevant with their consumers. And there's probably no more relevant story in the NBA right now.

Paul Swangard teaches sports marketing at the University of Oregon. He says advertisers find that kind of drama irresistible.

Swangard: You'd almost be silly not to fan the flames of that emotion, because it just continues to connect your brand to that excitement.

Nike also has a high-profile ad campaign starring LeBron and Kobe as puppets. The hype has apparently been good for the league: TV ratings for the playoffs are up more than 10 percent over last year. But if the marquee match-up doesn't happen, advertisers can wind up looking silly. Just ask Reebok.

Reebok Ad: Dan can throw a discuss 172 feet. Dave can long-jump.

Reebok spent millions hyping the showdown between Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, only Dan didn't wind up qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team. Industry observers say advertisers have probably learned from that mistake. Ben Sturner is CEO of the Leverage Agency, a sports marketing firm.

BEN Sturner: I'm sure Nike has a plan B. They're smart. They're not putting all their eggs in one basket.

Still, it's a safe bet advertisers will be rooting for the Cavs tonight.

I'm Joel Rose, for Marketplace.

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