Part I: Celebrity and public good, featuring LeBron James’ Nike commercial

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So last week, Nike released this commercial featuring NBA player LeBron James, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers and now of the Miami Heat:

Let’s be clear. This is not a commercial about basketball or selling shoes any more than that weird soliloquy by Tiger Woods’ dead dad was about golf.

If it was, LeBron James would steer clear of the controversy that surrounded his decision to leave Cleveland. He would focus on the thing that made him famous — his game — and its direct relationship to Nike’s desire to sell shoes to the young fans who idolize him.

The commercial does  close with that idea (which provides a convenient excuse to flash Nike’s famous Just Do It tag line), but not before all the sturm und drang. A four-second hoop shot does not outweigh 1:27 of self-indulgence.

Instead, what we have here is a commercial about a celebrity who knows he has messed up and is insisting on his right to reject public judgment of his actions.

The sad thing is, without that direct opening reference to his decision, the genre play and dress-up silliness might have amounted to something admirable.

There’s a level at which the commercial provides fairly effective commentary on the many hats public figures wear depending on who’s watching, and the difficulties these multiple identities present to their values. James also demonstrates humour in moments, such as when he contemplates acting — I particularly liked the Miami Vice shout-out.

But you can’t raise the idea of apology and not go through with it. Staring down the camera and asking if you should apologize is not parody, it is rudeness. Celebrity does not exempt James or anyone else from basic politeness.

That isn’t to imply that I’m troubled by what this particular instance suggests about James or the NBA or even Nike, who are clearly interested in being provocative and nothing more. But marketing like this affirms celebrities as ego-driven, eccentric individuals who act in harmful or benign ways according to their personal agendas.

What cultural documents like this one do achieve is the further erosion of the credibility of public figures en masse — they make us more cynical about the idea of celebrity ever working in the favour of the public good or being a source for legitimate criticism.

Sound far fetched? Stay tuned for Part II.

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