The nice thing about writing on your own blog is you only have to write about things you care about. No forced narratives, no assignments dictated from above. And, given that I am writing in relative obscurity, no corporate overlords to appease. All of which means I don’t feature commercials on Monday Media, because who the hell cares about commercials? But today Monday Media is a little bit different. Today I’m going to write about Kia’s series of increasingly biting commercials featuring Blake Griffin.
The first commercial, released right before the start of the season, depicts Blake Griffin time travelling in his Kia Optoma back to 1997. There he encounters eight-year old Blake Griffin playing football and tells him “wrong sport”, foreshadowing his basketball career. He also makes fun of eight-year old Blake’s jean shorts, though that’s really just a dig at the 1990s. It’s a safe and standard, albeit funnier than average, commercial. Pretty much in-line with the rest of his Kia commercials.
The second commercial in the series follows the same premise, as Griffin travels in time back to 1995 where he finds a six-year old Blake Griffin hanging from the rim of a basketball hoop. When young Blake asks for advice, current Blake deadpans “practice your free throws” before bricking one and adding “a lot”. Same premise and format as the first commercial, but instead of offering advice and making fun of a decade, Blake offers advice and makes fun of himself and his poor free throw shooting. It shows his growth as a pitchman, as well as his confidence in being able to make fun of himself on a national stage.
In the latest commercial of the series, Griffin travels back to an arcade in 1999 and encounters ten-year old Blake playing a game called “Tire Burner”. He tells young Blake “you should be playing that game”, pointing to a game called “Mega Dunk”. Young Blake disdainfully replies “but all you do is dunk in that game” to which Griffin responds in a conspiratorial tone “bingo”. This third commercial completes the evolution of Griffin as a pitchman, as pokes fun at the critics who argue all he does is dunk.
I sort of feel like there are three levels of appreciation of Blake Griffin:
The casual fan tunes into basketball irregularly and likes high-scoring or otherwise entertaining games. Blake Griffin is one of the handful of players this fan can name, and they love him. After all, who doesn’t love off the glass alley oops or vicious slams?
The regular fan watches a lot of their local teams’ games and some of the national games. They believe they are upholding the purity of the game when they proclaim Griffin is a flopper, and they hate his incredulous reaction to foul calls (never mind that their hero Tim Duncan reacts even worse). They are the generals in the “all he can do is dunk” army.
The basketball fanatic enjoys Blake Griffin for what he truly is: a damned entertaining player who is slowly evolving into an elite power forward. The basketball fanatic wishes that he would use his athleticism to become a better defender, but appreciates that he is continuing to improve his jumper to become an all-around offensive threat.
Presumably after seeing the last commercial in the series, Bethlehem Shoals wonders how Kia, of all car companies, conquered the NBA. Indeed, why not any other brand? Kevin Pelton posits the age old explanation “it’s the economy, stupid”, which Shoals seems to reject on the basis of bad branding. While I have no thoughts about how partnering with Kia is hurting or helping the NBA, I think it is clear that it has been a positive for Blake Griffin’s image. He is able to show a funny, smart, charming and self-deprecating side to his character that doesn’t (and can’t) come across while watching him play basketball. This is not an easy feat to achieve via commercials.
Compared to say, LeBron James’ Samsung commercial, we can see how truly notable the Kia commercials are. The Samsung commercial similarly attempt to show a different side of LeBron James, but fails in numerous ways. The branding is heavy-handed, so the viewer can never forget that they are watching a commercial and truly engage with LeBron. And while the commercial seems to be trying to portray LeBron as a gregarious family and community man, he doesn’t act notably different than he does on the court or in press conferences. It also doesn’t help that the commercial absolutely screams Miami (driving around on a sunny day in a Jeep, going to a Cuban barbershop), bringing up bad memories of The Decision.
The final step in Blake Griffin’s evolution, which I am skeptical we will ever see, would be to use his commercial platform to advocate for causes. LeBron James tentatively did this when he organized the photo of Heat players in hoodies to protest the death of Trayvon Martin, but we haven’t seen a big-time NBA player majorly advocate for a cause in a long time. Blake Griffin may never get there, but if he does, perhaps it will be because of Kia. Kia and social justice? Strange bedfellows indeed.