The year was 1992. After the success of their Hare Jordan ad teaming up Michael Jordon and Bugs Bunny during the Super Bowl, Nike was keen on recapturing the magic. Although the ad had initially been considered risky, it lived up to the company’s goal of creating “innovative advertising-but innovative in a way that captures the atheletes’ true nature.” While a team-up with a cartoon character was a natural fit for a family-friendly role model like Jordan, how could the formula be applied to an athlete like Charles Barkley?
Barkley’s professional debut came during the 1984 NBA draft, where he was quickly snatched up by the Philadelphia 76ers. Watching him on the court immediately made their decision clear. Rather than specializing in a particular position, “Sir Charles” was talented and skilled enough to play in any of them. He did, however, become legendary in the sports world for playing as a power forward and his aggressiveness in both defense and offense. Although his aggressiveness allowed him to dominate the courts, it also led to several controversies and frequent arguments with referees. But at the same time, he also possessed a sense of humor, recognized the value of self-improvement and was more than willing to admit that he wasn’t a role model. Weiden & Kennedy, the advertising agency tapped by Nike to create the ad campaign, definitely had their work cut out for them when it came to crafting an ad for such a complex man. But what better way to play off one who was practically a force of nature on the court than with another “force of nature”…Godzilla.
Originally intended to only be aired in Japan as a type of “foreign celebrity advertising,” response was so positive that the decision to bring it to the States was quickly made. Similarly, an in-house promotional spot for the then-upcoming advertisement proved so successful that Nike decided to air it as well. That’s right…this commercial had a commercial for itself! Thanks to the man who edited said ad, Bob Sarles, both commercials can be seen via his YouTube channel:
While Godzilla fans might be inclined to snicker at the factual errors in the first ad, its role in making Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley unique in the world of advertising can’t be denied. But its association with the main ad isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley was presented in 3D sound, was the subject of a documentary, has been cited in advertising textbooks and prompted merchandise like tee shirts, sneakers and posters. The following year saw the release of a comic book based on the ad (1993 also marked the release of another Barkley comic, Sir Charles Barkley and the Referee Murders). No matter how you slice it, this was definitely a huge first in the history of advertising.
Although Toho authorized Godzilla’s appearance in the ad, this was a rare occasion where they weren’t involved in the creation of the special effects. That duty was handled by none other than Industrial Light & Magic, whose award-winning work has been seen in the Star Wars series, Jurassic Park and countless other films. Rather than use computer graphics, ILM opted to use the traditional methods of realizing Godzilla (albeit with their own twists).
It’s interesting how, despite debuting during the Super Bowl on a major network and having merchandise associated with it, Hare Jordan seems to be largely forgotten by the general public while Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley is still remembered even though it first aired during the MTV Music Awards. I suspect this is at least partly due to people mistaking Hare Jordan merchandise for being just another example of standalone pun-based goods often associated with the Looney Tunes. Even though my childhood friends and I loved Looney Tunes, the Jordan ad was never discussed (I didn’t even realize it existed until years later) while we all knew about the Barkley ad, even non sports fans like myself.
For more information about Charles Barkley and his fascinating career, I highly recommend visiting his official website. After all, the man is the reason this piece of sports/Godzilla/advertising history exists and deserves your attention.