Friday, March 24, 2006

Mr. November

When Nike decided to run Ken Griffey, Jr., for President, there was just one problem-a reluctant candidate who knew nothing about politics. To the most powerful image makers in the world, that was part of the fun.

FROM GEORGE, AUGUST 1996
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by CORY JOHNSON

IT'S MORNING IN AMERICA'S most majestic ballpark, Boston's Fenway, and at 10 o'clock the grounds crew is already several hours into its preparations for this night's game against the Seattle Mariners. As an unusually hot morning sun bears down, a potbellied man pushes a cart that chalks the first-base line, while the sprinklers dotting the field go chink, chink, chink along the bright green grass. Beneath the stands, in the visiting team's locker room, the Mariners' Ken Griffey, Jr., sits at a small table. The room is deserted, save for a clubhouse attendant folding towels and an equipment manager unpacking boxes of bats. A nearby television with the sound turned off is showing a Nike hockey ad starring Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings. Though he's not generally pensive, Griffey, 26, is sharing some carefully considered thoughts about his new Nike ad campaign-in which he is depicted as a presidential candidate-with his manager and a reporter.

"It's too damn early in the morning for this muthafuckin' bullshit," he says. "Griffey for President-what kind of muthafuckin' bullshit muthafuckin' idea is that? I say, 'I want to do action,' and they got me running for muthafuckin' president! I say I wanna run and hit and shit, and these damn muthafuckas got me talking 'rally."'

He shakes his head. "Talk rally? What kinda bullshit is that? I hate these ads. [The Nike hockey ads]-see, that's some shit! They gonna give fuckin' Sergei Fedorov-or whatever his name is-that thing and give me this president bullshit? They put that first fuckin' ad on the air, and you know the first muthafuckin' question I get? Some reporter demands to know what my stance on abortion is. Demands no lie. I hate this shit."

Griffey is up so early this day to film the fifth in the series of Nike ads. The series is a deadpan satire of a modern presidential campaign, drawing, in particular, on The War Room, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 1992 Clinton campaign.

The first ads, which aired in February, showed a smiling Griffey in front of a waving American flag announcing his presidency While Griffey slugged homers, the Stars and Stripes was superimposed on the background, while fans waved posters proclaiming "Speak softly" and "Carry a 31 -ounce bat."

But spliced into these spots were clever montages of documentary-style scenes, done with a handheld camera and featuring real-life politico James Carville dissecting Griffey's "vision," or "campaign manager" George Clinton, the legendary funk musician, chiming in, "We've had an actor [in the White House], why not a center fielder?"

The series-which Nike is calling the most extensive baseball-related campaign in advertising history-will continue through the World Series in October. The sports-and-fitness company will spend an estimated $15 million to promote the campaign. That's quite a gamble by Nike, its ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, and the agency's creative director, Jim Riswold, the mastermind behind the spots. It's not just that the ads have little to do with sports or the proper use of athletic shoes: The campaign also runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that Americans love athletes but hate politicians. It's one thing for politicians to turn to Madison Avenue for help, but quite another for Madison Avenue to turn to politics.

The stakes are high for Griffey, too. If anyone personifies what is good about baseball, it is this son of a 19-year major leaguer. He has all the good looks, ebullience and skills to remind people of why they like the game--despite its labor problems, its boorish owners and its apparent disregard for its fans. Baseball needs Ken Griffey, Jr., to be a superstar, and nearly everyone invested in the game -- financially and spiritually -- is counting on Nike to do for "Junior" Griffey what it did a decade ago for "Air" Jordan. So no one was more surprised than Griffey when Nike, perhaps the world's most powerful image maker, chose to recast the young slugger in the most unflattering of roles: a politician.

ABOUT 40 PEOPLE ASSEMBED by @radical.media, a New York multimedia firm, have been filming at Fenway since 7 A.M. It's organized chaos: Prop people are constructing red-white-and-blue "Griffey in '96" placards, while Riswold and directors Bryan Buckley and Frank Todaro are frantically scouting new camera angles. They've been waiting for weeks to shoot this ad, but Griffey kept putting them off. He was mired in a batting slump, with just one home run in 23 games.

Riswold started working on the campaign in January with Wieden & Kennedy writer Hank Perlman and art director Darryl McDonald. "Politics has become a lot more a part of the popular culture," Riswold says. "I wanted to do a presidential campaign a couple of years ago when Charles Barkley [of the Phoenix Suns] said he wanted to run for governor of Alabama. But it wasn't an election year. And now, well, we had a Ken Griffey assignment. There was a point to be made that baseball is still America's game, and it dovetails with politics in some way."
When Nike was stymied in its attempts to create a cross-training shoe market in 1988, Jim Riswold-then a young Wieden & Kennedy copywriter-suggested they take a look at "this Bo Jackson kid," a struggling outfielder for the Kansas City Royals who also happened to play running back for the Oakland Raiders. The resulting "Bo Knows" campaign boosted sales of the Nike cross-trainers from $40 million to $400 million a year. Another 1980s Riswold brainstorm paired Michael Jordan with a young independent filmmaker named Spike Lee, for a series of "Spike and Mike" ads. And in 1991, after hearing Charles Barkley complain that today's parents were abdicating their role model duties in favor of athletes, Riswold created spots in which the bruising forward announced, "I am not a role model."

Riswold's campaigns may have created more American icons than anyone since Walt Disney. You would not, however, suspect it by looking at him. In a tan Patagonia baseball cap, wraparound sunglasses, a two day-old beard, worn Nike hiking boots (with the tiniest of "swooshes"), bleached blue jeans, and a neatly pressed black T-shirt, Riswold, 38, looks more like the seven-year philosophy undergrad he once was at the University of Washington than one of the most powerful forces in American advertising.

"I look at Nike as a brand of 100 doors," Riswold says. "I may hate 99 of those doors, and 99 of those messages make no sense to me. But one door says something to me. I go through that door and I'm a Nike person for life-because they spoke to me in a way that nobody else has spoken to me."

To Riswold, the Griffey campaign is not just a way of tapping into the American fascination with presidential campaigns; it's also a way of self-consciously making fun of the power of Nike-a touchy subject for the company, of late. The National Football League is suing the Dallas Cowboys over an exclusive contract the Cowboys signed with Nike. Basketball players such as the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning have confessed that they work for Nike first and their team second. And the company has been stung by recent reports of Nike's alleged sweatshop operations in Indonesia.

"There are a lot of people paranoid about the power of Nike, the swoosh-ification of America," says Riswold. "So we thought we'd have some fun with it. You know-'If you're scared about Nike, we'll run a political campaign-now you can be really scared.' "

So Riswold and his partners decided the Griffey spots would mimic The War Room, with a nod to the absurd. "We dissected the film, took it apart," says co--director Buckley. "We took exten-sive notes on the camera angles, things the interviewee says. We modeled the typography of the posters on the Democratic party campaign material. The music, everything, is the same."

All this postmodern irony, however, is lost on Griffey. When he arrives on the set at Fenway he is instructed to stand in front of a giant blue screen and recite his lines. He puts on a big smile and says his first line-"A shoe on every foot, and a pepper game in every back yard"-perfectly, but a cloud drifts overhead and the assistant director yells, "Cut." One of the photographers takes a few snaps. "You take my damn picture again and I'll bust your head," says Griffey , without taking the smile off his face or turning his head. Nike, apparently, has had the misfortune of hiring a still photographer who got into an argument with Griffey in Baltimore just a few days earlier.

The cloud passes and Griffey tries his line again. "A shoe on every foot, a pepper game in every backyard." It's a little flat.

"Just some more emphasis," Buckley says. "Talk rally."

"I don't talk in rally," says Griffey . "It's too damn early. I'm a baseball player. Baseball players sleep until 12:30. You guys are makin' me miss Ricki Lake, and I'm a big Ricki Lake fan."

The theme of this spot is a shoe on every foot and "pepper" in every backyard. Pepper is a warm-up game in which one player tosses a ball at a batter a few feet away; the batter hits each toss back to the fielder. Ballplayers have long used the exercise to sharpen their reflexes. But in the 1950s, some ballparks began to prohibit pepper to protect fans from errant balls.

"Ken was getting all flustered with people asking him about real-life political issues," Riswold explains. "So we said, 'Let's make an issue that he can talk about."'

The truth is, Griffey couldn't care less about pepper. just about the only thing, in fact, that he cares less about than pepper is politics. When asked about his real-life political beliefs, Griffey replies that he has none. He registered to vote only after the initial crop of Griffey for President commercials hit the air. And when his teammates jokingly pressed him on his political stances early this year, he said he'd eliminate taxes--not a bad idea for a guy who just signed a four-year contract extension worth $34 million.

WHEN THE @RADICAL.MEDIA CREW showed up in Baltimore with their carefully designed campaign signs, they discovered that there were fans in the audience who had their own, homemade Griffey for President signs.

Those signs, some of which were used in an ad, now decorate an @radical.media comer office as James Carville shoots one of his scenes. When the directors try to prompt his lines, saying, "People forget that pepper ..... Carville reminds them of what politics is all about. "No," he interrupts in his Cajun-accented speech. "The politicians forget, the people remember. I know fuh a fact that Madison wanted thuh Constitution tuh say 'life, liberty, peppa and da puhsuit of happiness'-it just didn't sound right."

Carville clearly loves this, in part because he's a natural ham and in part because he sees the concept of the Griffey campaign as an outgrowth of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. "The '92 campaign people remembered it," he explains after the cameras have stopped rolling. "Look at how well Primary Colors has done. Look at The War Room. This was a candidate and a campaign that people sorta kinda felt like they got to know. And Griffey has that same kind of approachability."

A week later in Seattle, Griffey is in a much better mood. The night after the Fenway shoot, he started a hitting streak, with five homers in four games. On his first day off, he invites a few close friends and his manager, Lynn Merritt, over for a barbecue. Merritt-whose salary is actually paid by Nike-has been regaling friends with tales of Griffey's petulant Boston behavior. "You should have seen him," Merritt says. "This was an all-time worst performance."

Griffey shrugs it off "I'm not usually like that," he explains. "But when I ain't hittin', how am I gonna go and do a big commercial? Pitchers on my team are calling me a Judy-hitter and I'm gonna go on national TV like hitting is a joke?"

In the following weeks, Griffey would go on to lead all of baseball in the election for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. In the last four years, Griffey has received more than 13 million votes. On November 5, that may be 13 million plus.

Cory Johnson has written for Outside, People and Vibe.

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