Clearing the Bar

"WHEN YOU SIT down to do a Michael Jordan commercial in 1997, the bar has been raised pretty high." So says Jamie Barrett, an associate creative director at Portland's Wieden & Kennedy, the firm responsible for Just Do It and many of Nike's other best-known campaigns. "He's been packaged pretty well over the years.... And he's arguably the greatest athlete in the world."


Greatness granted, the casual screen junkie rarely witnesses the intricacy and ingenuity involved in clearing "the bar"--or the talented and often invisible people who do it.

After a pre-season meeting with Jordan in which the player emphasized the "dimensionality" of his game, the ad's writers conceived of "The Jordan Moment," and an exploration of its possibilities, both on- and off-court. Barrett and co-creator Larry Frey discussed the "hyper-realistic" aura of entering a stadium, but dismissed real game footage as "kind of ugly." "We wanted it to look absolutely beautiful," Frey says. So along with producer Donna Baron and British video director Jonathan Glaser, they choreographed a five-on-five game with NBA players. They shot three endings: A deft pass, a three-pointer, and a dunk. The court was lit through a canopy of silky, translucent material spanning half the stadium. An assistant director filled L.A.'s Forum with between 500 and 1,000 human extras, plus another 2,000 cardboard fans. The shoot--for some 15 seconds of game footage-- lasted two days.

About 100 off-court vignettes were proposed, of which Glaser shot a dozen. According to Frey, the point here was to avoid the familiar "slice-of-life spot you've seen a million times," though one image, a flaming car in a repair garage, was rejected for fear of its reception in foreign markets. For the same reason, the spot eschewed speech. Following the first cut, Frey, Barrett and Glaser decided to add music over the original, diegetic soundscape. They considered the Harlem Boy's choir, for something "soulful" and "ethereal." "But they're getting into more of an R&B groove," Frey says, "which was actually a little disappointing." Instead, composer Jonathan Elias wrote a score employing nonsensical vowels and consonants.

As evidenced above, the deliberation over an ad's aesthetic choices reflects no small artistry. Yet the import or net thematic effect of such labor is harder to describe. "There's a limited number of people who have the opportunity we have to communicate in a very visible way to a great number of people," Barrett says. "That still excites me. I don't think it's so much that we're communicating any sort of useful information. I think we have an opportunity to make people react or make people feel something.... To take you as an example--the fact that it stood out on the TV enough for you to want to write a story about it indicates to me that you had some kind of visceral or aesthetic or emotional reaction to it that was positive. And to me that's enough."

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