By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
March 20, 2011: One year ago, LeBron James was seen virtually non-stop in marketing between the NBA All-Star Game and the NBA Finals. This season, he has had a relatively non-descript presence in national marketing, having gone from the most-liked to most-hated list due largely to public perception regarding the manner in which he rode free agency out of Cleveland and into Miami.
But with the 2011 NBA playoffs just a month off, James' marketing partners are testing the waters and slowly putting him back into the national mix in preparation for a bigger and more extensive presence.
This past weekend, during the NCAA tournament and on NBA games, State Farm put into regular rotation a national TV spot starring James, his first for the company since he joined the Miami Heat. That, along with a McDonald's spot from last season with James and Dwight Howard that the fast-feeder put back in to rotation, gave viewers a taste of what could come once the NBA playoffs being on April 17.
In February, Sprite broke "Bring Your Court to Life," a TV spot in which James, sporting a Nike "Witness" sweatshirt, is seen playing ball at a neighborhood playground. The campaign, which supports the rebuilding of neighborhood basketball courts nationwide, will be refreshed by the Coca-Cola brand to coincide with the NBA playoffs.
Nike has had some new campaigns this season with James to support shoe releases, most recently at Christmas and the NBA All-Star Game. But James himself has had limited face time and was actually bundled with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant in the efforts.
James will also be seen nationally via YouTube in a new animated series, The LeBrons, featuring characters inspired by previous Nike commercials.
James earns about $30 million annually from endorsements deals, the most among NBA players. His marketing is handled by LRMR, Cleveland, a company that James formed with his friends.
The new State Farm spot with James, "Magic Jingle: LeBron’s Rumble," from Translation, New York, is part of the campaign that has given rise to such catch phrases as "The girl from 4E" and "Can I get a hot tub."
In his spot, James, who has been with State Farm since February 2008, is in need of the company's services. It opens with James standing next to his friend, played by actor Aldis Hodge (currently on TNT's Leverage) and an SUV that has smashed into a mailbox and a statue on a front lawn.
"Call your agent," Hodge says to James. "My agent?" James replies. "You were driving."
"No. It's cool," offers Hodge. He then sings the jingle, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there," which, as per the theme of this campaign, causes the State Farm agent to magically appear.
"See what he made me do," Hodge immediately says, pointing to James. "It was him."
That initiates a mini-quarrel between the pair. James retaliates by singing [sort of], "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there . . . with the world's smallest violin [which appears]. 'Cause this is what I hear when you talk," James says to Hodge as he plays the violin.
Aldis is annoyed. "Can I bet a binky for baby Bron-Bron." Which appears in James' hand. "That's it," exclaims James. "Michael Buffer!"
The legendary boxing announcer pops into the shot and shouts his catch phrase: "Let's get ready to rumble!" At which point boxing gloves appear on James and Hodge's hands. (See the full spot here.)
A companion 15-second spot shot at the same time shows James break-dancing. A voiceover asks: "Why is LeBron dancing? Go to StateFarmNation on Facebook to see more."
Rival Allstate has been running a local radio spot in the Chicago area, "Big Decison," that takes a direct shot at James' decision to bypass the Chicago Bulls in his move from Cleveland to Miami.
In it, actor Dennis Haysbert , the company's spokesperson, says, "Shopping for car insurance. Think of yourself as a free agent with a big decision to make. Should you go where you'll get the most for your money or go with your hometown organization? Or maybe you should team up with one of the best in the business. You won't need months to decide because you can get all three at Allstate. They're from Chicagoland. For Chicagoland." (Hear the full spot.)
During the NCAA tournament, McDonald's has been airing the spot with James and Dwight Howard, which is an updated version of the classic Michael Jordan spot with Larry Bird. It shows the players in an über game of H*O*R*S*E, with a Big Mac and fries as the prize. In the new version, Bird himself appears and walks off with the food.