April 22nd, 2011

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.

April 21st, 2011

I write about Kenny Smith, and his miraculous new projection toy, with a heavy heart. Last night, the Inside the NBA gang revealed their newest gag: Kenny cringes at a vaguely homoerotic acrobatics show (Staples at halftime); Charles takes it easy and reminds us of his infinite heart of tolerance; Kenny mistakes “time out” for “pause” before correcting himself, then hammers it home with a tweet and an LOL. Granted, overly-muscled Slavs contorting each other in bulging gold briefs certainly warrants some comment. It would just be nice if the league’s resident “cool dads” could have handled it with their usual combination of snark and earnestness—or at least realized that, after Kobe’s misstep, uncomfortable catharsis probably wasn’t in their best interest.

But that’s not what I want to talk about; nor I do have any interest in calling for Kenny’s head (or his Keys, or his Pictures). One of the most exciting developments of the 2011 playoffs has been the arrival of Kenny’s latest tool for detailed analysis, an exercise in literalism, grandiosity, and high-tech silliness that’s really too funny to not have a form or brand attached to it. I suppose it’s an extension of “Kenny’s Pictures”, and the quick-on-his-feet Smith christened it “The Picture Show” last night. I had tried desperately to get “The Temple” or “Kenny’s Temple” to catch on in the Twitter-sphere (which is to desperation what Venus is to toxic gases). But it also calls to mind the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the curtains drawn back at an palatial old theater, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, mega-church evangelists, and this year’s celebrity game, where Eric Gordon donned a costume and acted out a scene from Gladiator in front of a green screen. It is at one toweringly stupid, instantly accessible—I just bought an iPad for a baby, btw—and maybe, despite it all, immortal. This could be TNT’s Gone With the Wind.

What’s so peculiar about The Picture Show is how little it accomplishes, at least in terms of what we’ve come to expect from this kind of gimmick. Technology has generally served to enhance the viewing experience, allowing us to see the game through the eyes of an expert by slowing time, zooming in, and scribbling all over a Telestrator. It makes us better, smarter fans, and in the right hands, provides a reason to not watch games on mute. The Picture Show, though, just gives us a life-sized Kenny inserting himself into the action to point at shit. There are very few pauses or slow-motion indulgences. Kenny stands there, in the middle of it all, and yells. It’s a distant cousin of an earlier feature, where the crew would get up out of their chairs and pretend to coach each other. While unmistakably technical and instructive, it also had obvious limitations—i.e. it demanded the viewer correlate these out-of-shape buffoons in suits with the game in progress. The Picture Show has no drawbacks. The game is present, a hallowed object blasted out at us from megaplex-sized screen, and Kenny is its high priest, wandering about to simply point out that, literally, he walks among it still. It’s a walking tour of the heavens, and only Kenny can ascend those steps and part those curtains.

Somehow, the best comparison I can think of is Longreads. Is it tradition, with all its lofty mystique, colonizing technology, or technology co-opting the past to uncertain ends? In writing, the past is shit previously considered too long to survive on the web. In basketball, it’s a way of seeing the game that depends on life-sized figures and an informant standing amongst them. What interests me most is that, in both cases, there’s a distinct sense that something well-branded and prestigious is being accomplished. Well, at least that’s what I want the Picture Show to be. If the name sticks, and that walk up the steps becomes ritual, it might be getting there. The question is, does a sports fan really crave distinguished atavism?