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Advertising as Therapy: Nike's LeBron James Ad Has More Angst Than Shoes

Nike (NKE)'s new ad with Lebron James has a similar feel to its disastrous Tiger Woods spot from April, which heaped ridicule on the golfer as his marriage fell apart. For some reason, Nike's brand management believes that therapy -- televised, highly edited therapy, conducted in public -- is what makes good marketing. For the rest of us it's both uncomfortable and infuriating. It also draws attention to the flaws of the athletes Nike sponsors, which can't be good:

In both ads, the athletes address the viewer directly, as if they're asking us to help them justify their life choices. James says:

What should I do? Should I admit that I made mistakes? ... Should I really believe that I ruined my legacy? ... Should I be who you want me to be?
If you thought the best thing that James could do following his widely hated "The Decision" to move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat was to quietly get back to work, create a winning record and let his performance on the court speak for itself -- you were wrong!

Apparently, Nike wants us to dwell on James' colossal ego -- he has the words "Chosen 1" tattooed on his back -- and help him rationalize his gargantuan self-image. The series of questions James poses are manipulative: "Maybe I should just disappear?" is one. They're designed so that the only reasonable answer is for us to agree with James. (That's a a classic sales technique, by the way: Get the prospect to say "yes" to a series of questions so that saying "no" when asked to purchase seems unreasonable.)

It's not all bad. I liked the poke at Charles Barkley -- because next to Barkley even James looks good -- and I liked the section in which Miami Vice's Don Johnson, dressed in a white silk suit with the sleeves rolled up, gives James advice as if he were still in one of his episodes from the 1980s.

Nike has done some of the best sports advertising in the world, and this isn't it. It's often smart to admit that athletes are human in ads. Nike's World Cup ad, in which Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was portrayed as a lonely, unshaven trailer-park dweller, banished from football for a game-losing missed pass, makes Rooney much more likeable than his real-life self (he cheated on his pregnant wife with a prostitute).

That is not what Nike is doing here, however. The James and Woods ads both feel like Nike is trying to talk the audience through its own rationalizations for using James, as if the company itself were in therapy. But therapy is for individuals who need a quiet space to find private answers to personal questions. It's not for advertising shoes. As such, these ads seem to say more about Nike management's angst about the unattractiveness of the celebrities they've contracted with than they do about sneakers.