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How Bo Jackson and Nike Changed the Sports Advertising Industry Forever

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If you mention the name Bo Jackson today in any professional sports environment, you’ll hear the same sentiment over and over: He could have been the best athlete to ever play the game —  any game.

In a 1989 Nike commercial, called “Bo Knows”, which advertises the “Air Max” cross-training shoe, Jackson illustrates all of this. In it, Jackson, while wearing an Oakland Raiders football jersey starts it off by asking his clone, who is wearing a Kansas City Royals jersey, “Don’t I know you?”

What follows is a series of fifteen other Bo Jacksons portraying fifteen different sports roles. One Bo Jackson dribbles a basketball, one carries a tennis bag, another rides in on a bicycle.

To this day, Jackson’s Nike commercials nails home the narrative of being consummate of cleverness and charm. Because, even twenty-eight years after its original airdate, the “Bo Knows” campaign remains the benchmark for athletic advertising.

At the time of this commercial, the “Air Max” shoe was in its third year on the market, and Nike’s sales were declining. After explosive growth in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Nike lost its dominance in athletic footwear to Reebok, which became one of the biggest brand-name phenomena of the decade. Starting virtually from scratch in the early 1980’s, Reebok International Ltd. earned a net revenue of $1.79 billion in 1985, compared with Nike’s sales of $1.2 billion. Both the Reebok and Nike figures include apparel and other company products. In athletic footwear alone, Reebok had 26.7 percent of the market and Nike 23.3 percent.

So, with all that considered, Nike needed a new identity. They needed an athlete who not only was blessed an athletic body, accompanied by supernatural strength, and uncanny physical traits, but also someone who could assure even the naive sports fan that you, the consumer, can be anyone, and do anything.

Just like any astute business would, they listened to their target audience and adjusted. At the time, sports was in an era where status quo reigned and versatility and uniqueness of an athlete were hard to come by. In the case of Jackson, who shined as a sensational two-sport star – flashing his skills as a rangy centerfielder for the Kansas City Royals and a powerful, bruising running back for the Oakland Raiders, Nike’s decision was never more clear.

In no time, Jackson’s “Bo Knows’ commercial made headway on various sports and entertainment channels such as ESPN, CBS, NBC and during Sunday NFL games. As soon as the nation captured the concept of what Nike was advertising, as an intuitive, modern athletic company, sales of the “Air Max” shoe caught fire. Three months after the commercial, Nike quickly dominated 80% of the new cross-training shoe market. Sales of the shoe rose from less than $40 million to more than $400 million at the height of Bo Jackson frenzy. 

”Nike is hitting on all cylinders,” Alice Ruth, a financial analyst for Montgomery Securities wrote in a 1989 New York Times article, titled “Nike is Bounding Past Reebok”. “They lead the race in terms of consumer demand and retailers’ confidence in the brand. There is one buzzword among retailers now, and that’s Nike.”

To the late 1980’s consumer, Nike’s partnership with Bo Jackson proved to be a perfect marriage, as it related perfectly to all young athletes looking for confidence. At the time, Jackson was the second most popular athlete in the world behind NBA star Michael Jordan.

But Nike’s pursuit of dominance in athletic footwear did not stop with one ad. Nike continued to feature Jackson as their poster athlete, however, instead of showcasing his tremendous versatility on the field, Nike centered their attention this time towards Jackson’s showmanship.

In their second ad, which featured a ripped Jackson posing with a wooden baseball bat anchored atop his burly and broad shoulders, and flat football pads draped across his upper-body, Jackson comes out as an all-purpose superhuman athlete.

This advertisement appeared on the backs of thousands of Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health magazines, which only intensified Nike’s reputation as the lead dog in athletic footwear. Ever since their masterful campaign peaked consumers interests in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, Nike has supplemented the company as a popular culture mainstay today.

Commercials aired now, sports, in particular, tend to rely on the same components that made Jackson’s Nike ads so successful. Take a superstar athlete or a primetime event, then have a myriad of sports revolve around an athlete’s prowess, conceding the viewer to not just their polished athleticism, but also the awe in which we see them as “gifted”.

In the end, Nike’s unique form of advertising nearly three decades ago helped create excitement in sports again. It motivated young athletes to take on the challenge of playing sports without second-guessing themselves.

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