There’s nothing funny about an NBA lockout, but that’s not to say that it can’t inspire some hilarious TV commercials. Back in 1998, Nike and Sprite stepped up to the plate with two campaigns that brought some levity to a pretty dreadful situation. Nike’s 15- and 30-second spots featured celebrity basketball fans Spike Lee, Dyan Cannon, Jackie Chan, Steve Guttenberg and Samuel L. Jackson seeking alternative basketball outlets, while Sprite had Grant Hill and Tim Duncan (somehow in NBA jerseys) looking for work.
“We’re not taking sides on the issues that have forced the delay of the NBA season,” said Ralph Greene, Nike’s global basketball director back in October 1998. “We just want them to resolve their issues and play ball.”
While Nike’s campaign created by Wieden+Kennedy played on the NBA’s “FAN-tastic” tagline, Sprite’s satirical spots created by Lowe & Partners/SMS actually saw Hill’s reputation take a hit. At the time, many players felt that Hill should have spoken out in support of the union, but instead he remained noticeably silent. In the spots, Hill and Duncan spoofed their unemployment and lobbied viewers to call “1-800-TALL-MEN” to hire them for odd jobs such as changing light bulbs, pruning trees, walking dogs and mowing lawns. Irritated with Hill making light of the situation, the Detroit Free Press quoted an unidentified player that wasn’t too pleased.
“They’re going to be out to get him,” he said, “and the four guys I talked to really meant it. Players with a lot to lose sacrificed a lot, and the sentiment is that the league is looking out for those two (Hill and Duncan) more than most. They’re going to take some shots.”
Other than the players’ animosity, the commercials actually garned a strong response. After they began airing at the end of November, over 350,000 calls were placed to the “1-800-TALL-MEN” phone line in the first two weeks.