His ads helped fans understand new sides of him. With fewer games televised nationally than today and social media not around yet, commercials provided a portal into the personality of athletes. Chicago Bulls games exhibited his athleticism and competitiveness; commercials revealed his humor and inspiration.
As ESPN continues to document Jordan’s glory days in “The Last Dance,” let’s rank and revisit 23 of his most memorable commercials.
1. Be Like Mike (Gatorade), 1991
The jingle is a certified earworm, difficult to resist singing or humming along to. And it almost never existed. Gatorade intended to use the song “I Wan’na Be Like You” from “The Jungle Book,” according to ESPN, but Disney’s asking price was too high.
A broken play turned into improvised beauty — just like Jordan changing hands in midair for a layup, which he does against the Los Angeles Lakers to open the minute-long advertisement in which kids try to emulate his moves.
“If we had used music from ‘The Jungle Book,’ the advertisement would have been forgotten,” Ira Antelis, composer of the jingle, said in “First in Thirst,” a book about Gatorade’s rise. “Instead, we generated a piece of music that we could own that the world could identify with Gatorade.”
2. The Showdown (McDonald’s), 1993
Aired in two parts during the Super Bowl, an in-his-prime Jordan plays a recently retired Larry Bird in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The stakes: a Big Mac and fries. The rules, courtesy of Bird: “First one to miss watches the winner eat. No dunking!”
They trade impossible shots, and we never find out who wins or why professional basketball players are promoting greasy fast food.
The premise is such a hit that Jordan and Bird run it back a year later with Charles Barkley pleading to play; as far as sequels go, it’s a swish. In 2010, McDonald’s fails to recapture the magic with LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
3. 23 vs. 39 (Gatorade), 2003
At 23, Jordan electrified the NBA by scoring 37.1 points per game, the most in league history by anyone other than Wilt Chamberlain. At 39, he played his final season, averaging 20 a night in a forgettable finish with the Washington Wizards.
How would a game between young Jordan and old Jordan look? Thanks to CGI — Harlem Globetrotter Kevin Daley serves as a body double — we get to see young Jordan flash his athleticism and old Jordan use his guile to keep up.
4. Is It the Shoes? (Nike), 1991
The character Mars Blackmon (played by Spike Lee) originated in “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee’s 1986 movie about a Brooklyn artist and her three lovers. Mars was one of those lovers, but his love for his Air Jordan sneakers is what endured as he became known as Jordan’s irritating hype man in Nike ads.
The most memorable one has Mars prodding Jordan about what makes him the best. In a 30-second spot, he asks eight times whether it’s the shoes. (It’s not, Jordan insists.)
5. Banned (Nike), 1985
“On Sept. 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On Oct. 18, the NBA threw them out of the game,” a voice says as a camera pans down Jordan’s body to those shoes. “Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.”
Equal parts anti-establishment and stylish, these red-and-black kicks were too hot for the NBA, which in Jordan’s rookie season mandated everyone’s sneakers be at least 50 percent white. As a marketing campaign, it worked; few products are cooler than prohibited footwear.
According to Yahoo Sports, Nike’s campaign was a bit misleading. It wasn’t the Air Jordan but the Nike Air Ship that prompted a slap on the wrist after Jordan wore the model in a preseason game.
6. 100-Foot Dunk (Nike), 1995
Wearing a face full of determination (and, more importantly, his shimmering Air Jordan XI), Jordan looks up at a hoop that is 100 feet high. Gravity doesn’t seem to be an issue — he is still rising as he slams the ball — until he looks down and realizes he eventually will have to let go of the rim.
7. Maybe It’s My Fault (Jumpman), 2008
“Maybe I …” Jordan starts, repeatedly, before explaining, in one way or another, that his rise to becoming the best basketball player ever was the product of hard work, competitiveness and resilience. It strips down the superstar and personalizes him, at one point taking the viewer inside his modest childhood home.
8. Who Is Johnny Kilroy? (Nike), 1994
After Jordan ditched hoops for baseball, he still had basketball sneakers to sell. So for the Air Jordan IX release, Nike created an intricate, absurd series with Steve Martin investigating whether Jordan faked his retirement. When Johnny Kilroy — a Jordan look-alike only with rec specs and a healthy head of hair — scores 79 points in a single quarter, the investigation picks up.
9. Hare Jordan (Nike), 1992
Hare Jordan (Bugs Bunny) and Air Jordan (Michael Jordan) form a formidable duo in a pickup game against weekend warriors. There’s no need for Scottie Pippen when you have Bugs on your team using classic cartoon moves such as dropping anvils, rolling bowling balls and smashing pies in the face. “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Bugs says at the end, foreshadowing their partnership in “Space Jam” a few years later.
“Originally, I just couldn’t think of a bigger star to pair Michael with than Bugs Bunny, so that’s how it started,” Jim Riswold, the creative director also behind the “Bo Knows” and “I Am Tiger Woods” Nike campaigns, told the Chicago Tribune.
10. Failure (Nike), 1997
The words to this one, recited by Jordan, belong in a high school gymnasium, teaching kids the value of perseverance: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot — and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
11. Rock-A-Baby (Nike), 1986
The massive success of the original Air Jordan sneaker led to a second installment two years later. For its introduction, Jordan levitates for his signature rock-a-baby dunk over an extremely 1980s jazz baseline.
“I’ve never had my vertical leap measured, but sometimes I think about how high I get up,” Jordan says in the 2014 book “Michael Jordan: The Life.” “I always spread my legs when I jump high, like on my rock-a-baby, and it seems like I’ve opened a parachute, like, that slowly brings me back to the floor.”
12. Boxers or Briefs? (Hanes), 1998
In 1998, you could tell a lot about a person based on whether they wore boxers or briefs. (The rise of boxer-briefs hadn’t yet streamlined a man’s decision tree.) In this ad, two women sitting on a park bench predict what’s beneath the pants of passersby until Jordan preempts them. “They’re Hanes,” he says with a smirk. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
13. Better Eat Your Wheaties (Wheaties), 1991
No athlete has appeared on more Wheaties boxes than Jordan, who convinced fans that the cereal fueled his ascent. Even former North Carolina teammate James Worthy, whose Lakers lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals, carries a box in his gym bag.
14. What is Love? (Nike), 2003
This commercial for the Air Jordan XVIII, which runs 4 minutes 30 seconds, aired during his final All-Star Game. The ad campaign included posters documenting Jordan’s NBA career.
15. Man Was Not Meant to Fly (Nike), 1985
Jordan takes off with a jet providing a soundtrack. The shape of his body in the air — and his original Air Jordan sneaker — would become iconic.
16. I Had This Dream (Nike), 1995
It’s difficult to believe the best basketball player in the world would retire at 30, in the middle of his prime and after scoring three straight Finals MVP awards, to play minor league baseball. “Can you imagine it?” Jordan says after returning to the hardwood, framing the unlikelihood as if it were all a dream.
17. Barkley vs. Jordan (Nike), 1994
A classic can-you-top-this setup between Jordan and Barkley, who had just met in the 1993 NBA Finals — Jordan’s last title before his first retirement. They even argue over who went bald first.
18. Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better (Gatorade), 1997
Different tone, same idea. Anything Jordan can do, soccer star Mia Hamm can do better — and vice versa — including fencing, tennis and judo.
19. Spike and Mike (Nike), 1994
Blackmon returns to deride Jordan during his baseball days. Major league icons Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and even Bill Buckner come to Jordan’s defense: “But he’s trying.”
20. Coca-Cola Treehouse, (1990)
Of Jordan’s various Coca-Cola commercials in the early ’90s, this one is the most quintessentially early ’90s.
21. Bacon Neck (Hanes), 2010
Hanes and Jordan helped bring to the mainstream the term “bacon neck,” referencing a ragged shirt collar, which consumers learn in this commercial can be rectified by the brand’s lay-flat undershirt.
22. Just Like You? (Chevrolet), 1997
One of the first endorsement deals Jordan signed after being drafted by Chicago was with area Chevrolet dealers, and he remained brand loyal.
23. Challenge (Gatorade), 1997
Being like Mike also means having Gatorade seeping out of your pores.
Read more on the NBA: