‘X’ Marks The Sport

Thirteen years ago, ESPN launched the X Games as a way to honor, televise (and um, monetize) such little known “extreme” action sports as motocross, BMX biking and skateboarding.

Since then, as extreme sports and their action heroes, like skateboarder Tony Hawk, have gotten more mainstream, marketers have also gone hardcore. Now we have “high-performance” tooth whiteners and extreme hair gels. My favorite is that ultimate fighting food, extreme Jell-O. (Although flavored gelatin might be able to do some gnarly back flips, it’s not because it’s been practicing.)

Most people would agree that when applied to inanimate objects, the “X” word starts to lose all meaning. This campaign from The Martin Agency, promoting ESPN’s X Games 13 (being held in Los Angeles Aug. 2-5) aims not only to take back the “X,” but pay it forward. Now X stands not so much for extreme, but for artistic expression.

Both on the Web site and in the TV spots, actual footage of the athletes in action gets doctored with gonzo animation that suggests everything from Mad magazine to Mad Max. The tone is perfect. As the kids say, it’s sick-nasty.

“I’m super-allergic to poultry. Seriously, the only thing I’m chicken about is chicken,” says Kevin Robinson in his TV spot, “Chicken Bone Voodoo.” Never mind that the guy vaults over huge canyons on his bike—the joke is that a tiny tender or an errant Buffalo wing could do him in.

We hear about Robinson’s fear of the bird as he does an insanely scary flip over a chasm filled with a giant, animated toxic chicken and cracked eggshells. The chicken looks more like a Chinese dragon than the Burger King’s big buckin’ one, but the two freaky birds could easily have a cage match. This is one Godzilla-like beast, but Robinson easily clears the creepy head.

The spots will run on ESPN and other channels, and also online. The Web site is subtle but funny. An “X” is in the center of the home page and each quadrant of the X is a separate athlete. (Kevin Robinson is on the bottom left.) We hear a female voice with a plummy British accent announce, “The X Games were first developed in ancient Egypt. What do you think the pyramids were for?” There are also running jokes, such as each athlete assuring visitors that they’re on “the “best area on the site.”

The earth, and what’s kicked up from the inside of it, plays a critical role in the campaign. In “Swan Song,” Ricky Carmichael, who is leaving motocross racing, says, “I dedicate my final race to my new twins, Kaden and Elise. Yeah, I’ve got this whole dad thing on the brain.” As he rides a course on his motorcycle through dirt and mud, he unearths abstract cartoon characters that follow him around; some look like the bluebirds of happiness, others like skeletons and worms. It seems he’s thinking about kids and death.

This year, the likeable Travis Pastrana is leaving bike racing for rally racing. He says, “Rally started as an itch I had to scratch.” As we see eerily humongous engine-mounted mosquitoes (motomosquitoes?) pursuing him, he says, “I didn’t know it was contagious.”

On the Web site and in the TV spots the music is contagious and perfectly X. In “Chicken Bone Voodoo” we hear “Chicken Bone Head Sucker” by Babe the Blue Ox. Other bands include Goose, Trail of the Dead and Jason Forrest.

The whole “these are true artists and their medium is sport” positioning could come off as a tad pretentious. But it’s really well done and the athletes comes across as charming, funny and themselves. Using the art of this generation—Japanese anime, video games, tattoo images, computer graphics—to illustrate the work is doubly smart.

One minor complaint: At the end of the spot, the announcer says, “See this and other original works of sport at the X Games,” and the visual makes it look as if he’s talking about an actual exhibition that’s going to travel nationwide.

Otherwise, while I’m not sure it will grow the X Game audience, anyone who’s into the sports will welcome the new Brand X.