Friday
Feb012013

Twenty Years Later, McDonald's Jordan-Bird Super Bowl Ad Remains Nothing But Net

By Barry Janoff

February 1, 2013: On Feb, 3, more than 100 million people will be watching the San Francisco 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.

Many of those people will also be watching the commercials that will fill the CBS national broadcast, for which companies paid an average of $3.8-$4 million for a 30-second spot, according to the network.

The burning question facing all Super Bowl XLVII marketers — from Toyota and Volkswagen to Axe and Wonderful Pistachios — is, "Will consumers remember us tomorrow?"

Twenty years ago, McDonald's ran a commercial which became so popular that people still talk about it and other companies such as Nike still try to imitate.

In 1993, just before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXVII on NBC, McDonald's aired "The Showdown" with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, a minute and a half spot in which Jordan shows up at a gym with a Big Mac and fries and is challenged by Bird to a game of H*O*R*S*E, with the winner getting the meal.

The commercial, created by ad agency Leo Burnett, Chicago, actually broke on TV late the previous year, but did not have a memorable impact until it aired on Jan. 31 in front of 90 million viewers.

People might not recall that the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills that day, 52-17, that Michael Jackson performed at halftime or that the game's opening coin toss was handled by O.J. Simpson. But the commercial, with its iconic "Nothing but net" catch phrase, lives on.

McDonald's rebooted it in 2010 with Dwight Howard and LeBron James. And Nike earlier this month unveiled "No Cup Is Safe," in which Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy try to outdo each other with longer and more intricate golf shots.

"The spots are iconic and enjoyable to the casual fan because they poke fun at our heroes' cartoonish skills with a wink, allowing us to be in on the joke."

"We watch sports to see the human drama unfold as great athletes, under inordinate pressure, deliver extraordinary results," said Jeff Pomeroy, a 20-year marketing and communications veteran, including 12 years with Turner Sports, who is now president of JDP Communications, Atlanta. "'The Showdown' spots are iconic and enjoyable to the casual fan because they poke fun at our heroes' cartoonish skills with a wink, allowing us to be in on the joke."

During the broadcast of Super Bowl XXVII, played in the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif., 30-second spots were going for an average of $850,000. Also among the advertisers were American Express (with Jerry Seinfeld), Magnavox (with John Cleese), Advil (with Nolan Ryan) and Ford (with Susan Lucci).

Jordan himself appeared in another Super Bowl spot that day for Nike alongside Bugs Bunny, "Hare & Air Jordan: Space Jam."

"The Shootout" was filmed in Chicago and includes a closing shot of Jordan (then with the hometown Bulls) and Boston Celtics legend Bird atop the Hancock Building. The spot was directed by Joe Pytka, who 17 years later filmed the LeBron-Howard remake for ad agency Translation USA.

"'The Showdown'" is one of the best Super Bowl spots of all time. I would put it up there with some of the most remembered," said Robert Tuchman, president of experiential sports and celebrity travel-services firm Goviva, NY, who has more than 15 years of executive experience with sports marketing and sponsorship firms. "The interesting thing is that it had nothing to do with football, it was basketball, which makes it even more compelling."

"The interesting thing is that it had nothing to do with football, it was basketball, which makes it even more compelling."

The original spot opens with Jordan entering an empty arena carrying lunch from McDonald's.

"What's in the bag?" Bird, who has been shooting around on the court, asks Jordan.

"Big Mac. Fries," Jordan replies.

"Play you for it," Bird says. "First one to miss watches the winner eat."

In 1993, the cost of a Big Mac was about $1.99 (versus $4.30 today) and Jordan was making $4 million a year, so it must have been the challenge of beating Bird that made him agree to play for something he already owned. Months earlier, the two had been teammates on the U.S. Men's Basketball "Dream Team" that won a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

There was one rule, per Bird: "No dunking." In the remake, there was also one rule, but with different ramifications: "No jump shots," says Howard to James.

What follows in the original ad is a series of side shots, hook shots, long-distance shots, shots off the glass, shots using non-shooting hands and shots from one knee.

Then the degree of difficulty really increases. The two players are in the stands when Bird says, "Off the floor, off the scoreboard, off the backboard, no rim." Next they are sitting in the rafters high above the court. Jordan says, "Over the second rafter, off the floor," followed by the first use of the now classic, "Nothing but net."

They then move outside to attempt shots through an open window. In the closing scene, they are atop the Hancock Building. "Off the expressway, over the river, off the billboard, through the window, off the wall, nothing but net," says Jordan.

"The commercial has resonated because the idea was so simple. And the personalities involved had always been, and remain, linked together.""

"The commercial has resonated because the idea was so simple," said Tuchman. "And the personalities involved had always been, and remain, linked together with the question of who was better."

McDonald's tagline in 1993 was, "What you want is what you get." But Bird had to wait for a guest appearance in the 2010 remake to actually get the Big Mac and fries.

In "Check This," which was filmed in Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Howard (then with the Orlando Magic) challenges LeBron (then with the Cleveland Cavaliers) for his Big Mac and fries.

An abundance of above-the rim shots follow, including 360-degree jams, double-pump slams and a rim-rocker that begins with each player taking off near the free throw line.

Ultimately, Howard shatters the backboard and is left holding the rim. Which brings a round of applause from Bird, who is sitting in the stands. "Great show, guys. Thanks for lunch," Bird says as he walks off with LeBron's food. "Who is that?" Howard asks. LeBron relies, "I have no idea."

"This is a commercial that you can continue to recreate over the years by just changing the athletes or entertainers involved," said Tuchman.

Nike saw it that way with "No Cup Is Safe," which heralded the arrival of Rory McIlroy to the Nike Golf brand via a long-term, multimillion-dollar deal.

"The creative will have more legs in digital form and even the potential of another commercial. I wouldn't be surprised if you see fan-made YouTube versions pop up."

"I actually tweeted about the new Tiger and Rory Nike ad, that it was 20 years after the famous McDonald's Larry Bird and Michael Jordan spot," said David Schwab, managing director for First Call, the sports and celebrity acquisition and activation division of global marketing firm Octagon. "Americans love rivalries, even if it plays out in a commercial."

"The Shootout" is ranked on many lists as one of the best Super Bowl spots of all-time. But much like The Who's "Baba O'Riley," which is often mistakenly referred to as "Teenage Wasteland" (a phrase repeated in the song), the Jordan-Bird spot is often called "Nothing But Net." McDonald's did not object, and even released in 1993 a "Nothing But Net" in-store promotion of six cups featuring NBA MVPs including Bird, Jordan, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley and Bill Walton.

There may be more versions of "The Showdown" to come, but only if the stars and storyline are properly aligned.

"The creative works only when you use talent that are at the very best of what they do, like Nike has captured with Tiger and Rory," said Schwab. "The creative will have more legs in digital form and even the potential of another television commercial. I wouldn't be surprised if you see fan-made YouTube versions pop up, where they remake the Nike spot on the golf course."

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