Scene from the Warner Brothers film 'Air' (2023) | SCREENSHOT: Adam Stephens/YouTube

Just about everyone knows the feeling of getting a brand-new pair of Air Jordans and showing them off just after they’ve hit the store shelves. The shoe that changed the world and helped make its namesake a billionaire truly transformed everything from sports, entertainment, fashion, marketing, and so much more. Perhaps Nike’s most outstanding innovation was in how they advertised their star’s signature sneakers. With Michael Jordan in place as the leading man, the company presented commercials that told his story in ways that were creative, profitable, and – for the fans – a lot of fun to watch.

Michael Jordan vs. the Utah Jazz during the 1996-97 NBA season | SCREENSHOT: Scott Cole/YouTube

Whether it was the imagery or the catchphrases, the various Air Jordan ads have become a part of pop culture – often being quoted or copied on playgrounds all around the world. Nike was able to give us sensational snapshots of MJ and the Air Jordan brand. And like scenes from a really, good movie… it’s those images that tell us the story of the man and the sneaker.

They could be dramatic and poignant, or silly and sappy. It didn’t matter. The greatest player of all time, wearing the greatest sneaker of all time, was a winning combination. And Phil Knight & Co. definitely knew how to package it in a way that made us all want to run out and grab a pair. Just to be like Mike.

There are literally dozens of great commercials featuring Michael and the shoes that helped him soar to six NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls. Here’s a look at eight outstanding examples of excellent Air Jordan advertising:

The First Air Jordans: “BANNED!”

When Michael Jordan and Nike first revealed their shoe line to the world, it didn’t go over too well with the NBA. At the time, The Association had a rule that a certain percentage of the players’ shoes had to be white (Much like the Converse All-Stars line was at the time… It was considered a standard of the industry).

However, the first version of the Air Jordan sneaker was almost solely black and red, which prompted the NBA to issue a warning to #23 and the shoe corporation. However, there are conflicting reports on how many ‘fines’ Phil Knight was forced to pay, and the Jordan 1 was featured in exhibition games, while a more NBA-friendly version found its way into regular season games.

Still, the ‘Banned’ gimmick was a great ad campaign to kick off the start of the brand’s marketing campaign, and it definitely added to the buzz around this budding basketball star.

“TELL ME”

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Michael Jordan is known as an intense competitor, and this commercial definitely signifies that.

It’s a montage of MJ on the court, with him narrating along. Except, he isn’t talking about his accomplishments or even his Air Jordan brand shoes. Instead, we get a look inside his soul and see what made him tick. In his own words, you can hear why the man played the game at such a high level.

In his narration, the basketball icon is heard asking – no, begging – anyone to criticize him or his game. He repeatedly implores the viewer to tell him he’s not good enough or question his will to be the best. It’s almost as if he’s goading someone into him displaying his greatness, and it’s a striking example of how he played the game with a chip on his shoulder – and the intestinal fortitude to ander any challenge.

Mars Blackmon meets Michael Jordan

“It’s GOTTA be the shoes.”

That’s what Mars Blackmon (played brilliantly by famed director Spike Lee) theorized when he tried to explain Jordan’s unexplainable hoops prowess. But as Mike kept letting him not, it was most definitely NOT the shoes,

A real step forward for Nike, this advertisement appealed to the hip-hop crown and the counterculture vibe that surrounded Lee’s films. And Spike punctuates everything perfectly with his Brooklyn accent, asking the viewing audience, ‘Do ya know? Do ya know? Do ya know?’ Add Little Richard into the entourage – along with some cool cinematography – and it’s easy to see why Mars Blackmon was the ultimate hypeman for Air Jordan.

“Who’d you expect? Elmer Fudd?”

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As Michael and the Jordan brand permeated pop culture in the 90s, he crossed over onto other entertainment platforms beyond endorsements. He hosted Saturday Night Live and obviously was a favorite on the talk show circuit. But he expanded to motion pictures when he teamed up with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes characters for a commercial crossover of galactic proportions.

In the commercial, Air Jordan teams with Hare Jordan (Bugs) to rule the court. It was a great mix of live-action and animation, and it had a family-friendly appeal that many sneaker ads didn’t have at the time.

Of course, the Warner Brothers tie-in was leading to Michael’s starring role in the family film, Space Jam, where he teams up with the characters of the cartoon universe to play basketball against aliens. The 1996 release would go on to gross $250 million worldwide – further proving that you could get people to buy literally anything in the 90s… as long as it had the words ‘Air Jordan’ attached to it.

“CEO JORDAN”

In a more comical role, Mike parodies himself as the CEO of his Jordan brand (which, essentially, he was.) and goes through the different paces of running his own Air Jordan factory.

As his huge machine continues to churn out pair after pair, His Airness does a quality control check, bending and contorting each pair. Then, when they finally passed through,  he would include a tag that said ‘Inspected by no. 23’, in much the same way factory garments of the past were examined for sale.

Also shot in black and white, this ad has an extra touch of class as it shows MJ in his ‘executive look’, complete with the tailored suits that he made the off-court fashion of the league in the 1990s. It was a dose of cool class and clever comedy that continued the story of Michael and the Air Jordan brand.

“Maybe It’s My Fault”

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Another powerful Air Jordan ad sends a clear message. In this one, MJ explains to fans that even though he sometimes makes the game of basketball look easy? It isn’t.

Once again, Jordan looks back to discuss the time and effort he puts into honing his craft. He talks about all of the things that he does on the court but lets everyone listening know that it isn’t magic that made that happen; it was hard work.

Part of Jordan’s legacy has been his work ethic and his ability to rise above any challenge. In this ad, Nike does a really great job of describing what makes the man who wears the show so special. In his own words, nonetheless.

“The Takeoff”

This blast from the past features a young MJ blasting off.

Complete with jet engine sounds in the background, this early effort by Nike’s marketing department was simple, yet effective. Still looking to burn the phrase ‘Air Jordan’ into the public conscience, the corporation simply had the superstar soar for a long dunk and played in slow motion with sound effects and narration by Michael, himself.

This was the genesis of the Jordan machine, and it gave a peek at how they were establishing him as something far different than his contemporaries. And while this one would probably be considered not all that special by today’s standards? In 1985, it made every young kid stop and watch the jetstream flight of the NBA’s hottest young flyer.

“The Frozen Moment”

There’s no other performer in any sport that’s as appreciated for their mix of athleticism and artistry as Michel Jordan. He made basketball beautiful with his court creativity. At times, he often held the game in his hands, as if everything stopped when he had the ball.

That’s why the Air Jordan commercial referred to as “The Frozen Moment” might sum up his aura the best. In it, The GOAT is making a move, no doubt looking for a dramatic, clutch shot. And while he is in an intense moment on the court, the scene starts moving in slow motion. And all over the world, people are watching him… and their world slows down for a few seconds, too.

It’s a powerful reminder of how a single moment from the greatest player ever once made the world stand still… if only for a few seconds. And it’s an example of how well the entire Air Jordan promotional campaign didn’t just sell shoes, it helped tell the story of the player. They made us laugh and marvel. But most of all, they helped cement Jordan’s legacy as an american icon and pop culture hero. And most of all, taught a generation of kids that if they wanted to run, play, or maybe even fly?  To Just Do It.

Ryan Boman is the author of the 2023 book, Pop Music & Peanut Butter: A Collection of Essays about Embracing Life with Laughter & LoveFollow him on social media @RyanKBoman

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