Chris Herren, former Nuggets and Celtics guard, and son of the Boston metropolitan area, has a new memoir out called Basketball Junkie. His hometown of Fall River looks pretty nice, so I’ll refrain from pulling out references to The Town, and I’m sure his last name is an unlucky accident. There are plaques around Seattle (a major dope town) to commemorate famous herons, and no one laughs about those. There are two kinds of people in Seattle: oppressively healthy, and virulently unhealthy, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, about Herren’s book: I read an excerpt in SLAM, and it was gripping enough. The title, though, opened up (ahem) an old vein for me. “Basketball junkie” or “hoops junkie” have always been two of the sillier bits of lingo in the sports lexicon. I wish someone could tell me that they sprang from the streets, where drugs were a real risk.
Alas, I suspect they’re an absent-minded usage in the finest post-Trainspotting/heroin chic tradition. But whatever, I DID NO RESEARCH. Just thinking out loud on ye olde Tumblr, which is way safer than that beastly Twitter. So while this is something of a wake-up call to that expression, it’s also an irony that never should have been possible in the first place. It also makes me that much more uncomfortable at two of my favorite business names: “Bath Junkie”, a national chain, and Seattle’s “Thai Junkie”. Do these people even know what “junkie” means? Didn’t they see the movies? Bathtubs have a very literal place in the literal world of real junkies; it’s where they’re put in case of near-death. Similarly, Thailand is lousy with smack, as both a pipeline and a place where tourists can cop for their pleasure. I get that these are meant as innocent word-play—”What? Us, sleazy?”—but instead of divorcing themselves from reality, they’re sunk in deeper than I think they’ve ever considered. Oh well. At least it’s not “Tie Junkie”, which is what I initially assumed it to be.
I’ve been planning for a minute to vivisect the NBA Playoffs advertising playlist. My initial reaction: None of these speak to me, and I am the league’s target demographic. I guess being broke boots me out, though. That’s the only possible explanation, since this advertising is corny as fuck. The non-stop ads for metal detecting as a hobby and a way of life (learning to draw, however, is NOT a possible career) are especially incongruous. Forget about race, or (sub)cultural niche. Are age 24-35 men really looking to take up the banner hobby of the retired, the far-flung, and the Dale Gribbles of this world? Even more poignantly: When I think metal detectors and the NBA, I flash right to racial tensions and fear of young black men and weapons. Or, as in the photo above, little girls being searched in mildly suggestive ways. Thankfully, the playoffs advertisers, whose name escapes me, are most interested in digging up ancient Celtic gold or Civil War relics.
Then I noticed that Barkley’s incessant mentions of CrossFit actually made me sit up and ask, sometimes to no one in particular, “what’s CrossFit”? Commercials, save me for the sneaker and Old Spice ones that qualify as pop art, are inherently silly in the information age. We know the products, or at least have a more ingrained perception of the brand than could be changed in twenty seconds. Advertising itself, unless it goes for self-aware or weird (maybe not the most popular choice for companies in these shaky, risk-averse times), is for chumps. What is the NBA demographic? Black, white, rich, poor, it’s folks who can’t watch ads with a straight face. Any attempt to pull the wool over our eyes only pushes the product, and its new image, further and further away from us. At least the local ads we used to, and sometimes still do, get over League Pass had regional obtuseness going for them.
Basketball, as evidenced by its over-developed relationship with blogging, YouTube, and streaming game, appeals to people who like to find shit out for themselves. Not be handed a bill of goods. It’s not skepticism, and a good website certainly goes a long way. But handing NBA fans a pitch just won’t cut it. Why does Wieden+Kennedy continue to run this? It doesn’t try and sell anything, or manipulate image. They provide enhanced content, a missing link between the player brands that develop almost organically, and the product associated with them. In those Ray Lewis ads, we learn nothing about deodorant. We do, however, get a play on the Lewis we though we knew, plus a dash of entertainment. Cachet accomplished, and just maybe, the Old Spice brand is stronger for it. But there was no serious, linear attempt to impart to values of X onto Y in a way that couldn’t possibly alter our perception of a familiar product.
That’s why, for my money, the best advertising for these playoffs has been Charles Barkley’s non-stop shout-outs to CrossFit, whatever that is. Every time he mentions it, in could-give-a-fuck-less, self-deprecating manner, I ask my wife “what’s CrossFit”? She’s smarter than I am, so she doesn’t answer. But I’m part of that NBA demographic. I want to buy, and believe, but I want to get there myself. That’s what Google is for, or the associations I bring a good W+K ads. Brand becomes collaborative, participatory. You complete the puzzle. It’s the difference between completing a puzzle with friends, with beer and shit-talking in tow, and someone giving you that same image as a framed poster for Christmas. Actually, that last line really bummed me out. On some level, I suppose metal-detecting ads do, too. Please, put us both out of our miser. Let the future in. Shit, I’ve got the laptop open throughout most of these games. Shouldn’t all advertisers get wise to that dynamic?
Oh, and over at the GQ.com blog, the heavenly David Roth stops by for some kibitzin’ about the playoffs. Look for him more regularly from here on out. For Good Men Project, I wrote a moving tribute to my brothers and sisters in NBA Twitter blastin’, even if that medium is pretty much useless at this point.