While taking in an enjoyable double-header on TNT last night (I think its highly enjoyable nature had a little something to do with this), I couldn’t help but notice that I was watching Blake Griffin in a whole mess of commercials. I saw his newest one for Kia last night, and I’m happy to report that his latest entry into our advertising imaginations matched most of his other previous efforts. All of the common motifs are there. A comically large Blake Griffin teams up with a comically short Jack McBrayer (he played Kenneth in 30 Rock, a show that becomes unfunny when you realize it’s just competing one-liners spoken far too briskly) to do silly things around a midsized Kia sedan. There’s the standard Blake commercial gags — we get a rope and pully schtick, some slow-mo urban duck-and-cover, a random cat, and so on — and it feels familiar, if not awe-inspiring. We probably don’t need to look that closely at it. But I was; I couldn’t help it. Let me explain: for a strange reason, as I watched Blake Griffin silly himself all over my television screen, I couldn’t help but notice that I was thinking quite deeply about his race, or rather, his mix of races. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, when I watched Blake sell a particular product on the television, what I was also seeing was a purposeful move to make him as post-racial as possible, in both this commercial, and others like it. Indeed, it seemed like he was being put forth in a way to emphasize that, when it comes to selling things, race was something that needs to be put aside. The goal was to be as colorless as possible.
Of course, Blake Griffin is no stranger to pushing products. At this point you can turn to just about any channel on your television, and you’re likely to see Blake pop up with some mass-produced and consumed item in his hand. He might be selling flimsy, soggy Subway sandwiches, convincing us that this is what “champions eat”(and knowing some of the dietary habits of the best athletes in the world, he might be correct). He might be using UVO to travel back in time in a Kia sedan that wouldn’t be able to accommodate his massive body in the flesh, confronting past versions of himself living the suburban, upper middle class lifestyle that is becoming the dominant identity of some of the most marketable NBA players. He may even be selling you video game rental services (I think that’s what GameFly is, I’m an old man and haven’t played games in years), imploring you: “Don’t do this. Do this”as he hovers above a nondescript office while wearing a jet-pack. In all of these commercials, Blake is marketed as appealing to a young, tech-savvy audience; one that is familiar with Internet humor, and may or may not watch even watch basketball on a regular basis. His imposing (but not unbelievable) figure, deadpan delivery, thousand-yard stare, and ability to promote a variety of products makes him an ideal front man for any warm-blooded capitalist wanting to make a few billion dollars.
But Blake Griffin as a push-man is a new thing, because there hasn’t been a Blake Griffin in the NBA before. You see, Blake Griffin comes from a mixed race background; something that only recently it became popular among a wider, more progressive audience (and purchasing group). Granted, I may just be saying this because I am biracial and I like to think that the world revolves around me, but it just seems like there’s a greater focus on bringing biracial-ness (and multiracial-ness) into the purview of the mainstream. It seemed to start with a fairly innocuous Cheerios commercial depicting an admittedly adorable mixed family (and I must self-consciously admit that as the product of a loving, supportive mixed race family, I was moved to tears the first time I saw the commercial) and since then, there has been a floodgates of mixed-racialism. For example, there has been intense focus on the household of New York City mayor-elect Bill De Blasio, who has two biracial children, and whose mixed family presents itself as a 21st century version of a mythical American Dreamin’ post-racial society not possible before the election Barack Obama (who, of course, the world’s most popular biracial citizen). Television commercials have been quick to depict interracial relationships; no longer fearful of the fact that such a pairing implies prospective mixed progeny down the road. The comedy of Key & Peele, two biracial men, have highlighted unique aspects of biracial upbringings and adulthoods (including the ability to “turn it up” when other black folks are around), and allowed for expanded discussion into the racial definitions we use to describe ourselves, and other. And thankfully, more than ever, the internet has provided a place for biracial (and multiracial) folks to highlight the particularities of their existences as they walk a thin-line between multiple racial spheres. I know people might question this, but it’s true. Not long ago, there was a time when being biracial wasn’t an acceptable identity to maintain; you had to choose between one or the other, and stick to that designation even though your own upbringing and heritage necessitates that you be a bit more flexible with your multiple identities.
Along these lines, it is hard not to observe Blake Griffin, and wonder about the racial overtones produced by his expanding body of commercials and endorsement deals. Whomever writes and directs the myriad of commercials Blake appears in — it’s likely several people — have made a purposeful choice to accentuate Blake’s post-racial appearance and identity, and in particular, his ability to exist believably in predominantly white, upper middle class spaces. Much of this has to do with his appearance; on first glance, Blake’s race is ambiguous, and does not make itself immediately apparent. His ruddy hair, freckled face and light skin does not clearly indicate a biracial past, and may even look white without prior knowledge of his upbringing. In this regard, he seems strangely believable next to a diminutive, grinning Jack McBrayer as they both galavant about the rich neighborhoods of an anonymous city in red track suits in their Kia. His stand-in as the lead man of a television-friendly College Humor spot — essentially the content of this GameFly commercial referenced above — doesn’t seem remarkably out of place, even neck to his two slap-stick white college-aged side kicks. And even this recent effort from Jordan, which casts him as an alley-oop catcher in a pickup basketball game featuring a mix of different races, seems to be depicted in an integrated, gentrified middle class neighborhood in an unknown West Coast metropolis (likely Los Angeles). In all of the commercials, Blake is depicted to be quirky, humorous and safe; someone that can be happily consumed by a mass (predominantly white) audience, and easily digested by a willing, predominantly white consumer group.
A few months ago, my colleague Felix Huang of Brooklyn Yellow Lines and I discussed Nike’s Black History Month (BHM) campaign, and media related to that product rollout. We agreed that, though blackness does sell — especially among white consumers — it is important that it not be seen as too black, as to not offend those who are still living in shellshock from the still-feared Iverson Era; a more radical, militant expression of blackness located in urban environments and informed by a long history of segregation, discrimination and state-sponsored violence and oppression. In this way, Blake as a biracial individual with an ambiguous phenotypical appearance is a new type of front man. It is a powerful image, and one that must be powerfully appealing to a broad swath of left-leaning consumers. He is marketed as post-racial in many ways; an inclusive and engaging personality who has no interest in mean-mugging you, who instead would like to watch you laugh at his signature deadpan deliveries. And most importantly: you cannot immediately tell what race he is; a walking, talking example of post-racial harmony. At the same time, his skillset on the court, and personal profile among fans, give him legitimacy that other push-men have not been able to claim, and a mass appeal that can work in concert with off-the-court endorsement deal. The sheer ferocity of his game, complete with thunderous dunks, jaw-dropping blocks and out-of-this-world rebounding, are inspiring even to the most cynical of observers. At the same time, his occasionally pouty, self-aggrieved nature while participating in NBA games establishes a necessary level of humanity — “oh yeah, he is sorta annoying sometimes” — that all of the best push-men need to thrive for the longterm.
The rise of Blake Griffin as an in-demand marketing man raises questions that have appeared and reappeared throughout my life as I — and other mixed race folk like me — negotiate the blurred lines of memory, history and identity. When you can’t fully claim the identity of one group over an other, a peculiar conundrum arises. It is difficult trying to develop a broad appeal, while at the same time, convincing members of a particular group that, despite your appearance and upbringing, you do belong; you are one of them. In that regard, Blake seems entirely concerned about creating an image that takes this mindset into heart, and puts it into lucrative practice. His commercial image depicts a man who really is just being himself; a product of his upbringing in an upper middle class household in Oklahoma. He’s quirky and funny; perfectly acceptable in the post-racial society so many people strive for. At the same time, his on-court scowls and shoves seem to cry “I do belong. I can stand up for myself”; a sharp contrast to his commercialized image, and a set of behaviors that do not privilege itself to one race or another. As such, those around him, and those who admire him, follow suit lock-and-step. His products sell well when he’s the one selling them. His teammates stand up for him when he’s the one leading the charge. As the front-man, he benefits, continually. And frankly, there is no reason or motivation for him to change the way he markets himself.
I think Blake Griffin and I would agree: there is no right way to negotiate a mixed identity. But Blake’s success in commercials emphasize there does seem to be a right way to market it; or at the very least, a very lucrative way.