The sudden boob-rip aside (and whether we saw a red-lace-covered breast or a scary, brooch-studded naked one seems almost beside the point), the Super Bowl was a night of weird contradictions, a mixture of patriotism (a little in the beginning) and porn (all the way through). And in the mix, one of the stranger elements was that Muhammad Ali actually appeared in three different spots: Linux, Gillette ("The best a man can get") and the "Choose to Vote" PSA.
Some people felt affronted seeing Ali trotted out three different times, arguing that with his Parkinson's, it gets creepy and almost telethonic to use him. I disagree, and I thought he came off great in the Linux spot. It had a high tone, and while the über-white kid is a bit freaky, it expressed a consistent brand message: Linux is not just for German hackers anymore (especially once it's been on the Super Bowl). And it was a wise move to focus on Ali, since he had the most powerful on-camera moments of any of the celebs previously used to educate the lab-child.
Meanwhile, four days post-Bowl, Adidas unveiled a $50 million global campaign—its largest and most expensive ever—and who is the star? Muhammad Ali. Why is he everywhere suddenly? The mean and cynical answer is that he needs the money. But in the bigger picture, it could be because we have a real paucity of heroes now, and he was The Greatest. In addition to being a superb athlete, he crossed racial and political boundaries at a turbulent time in our history (though some of it is pre-Kennedy, and for kids, that's like going back to the Civil War). And he was ahead of his time in his brilliant, brazen and witty dealings with the media. He's still here—he's a survivor—but he's damaged, and that evokes strong emotion: nostalgia and sympathy. Plus, we are always looking for a national Daddy.
Another, simpler reason for Ali's ubiquity is that there's tons of great footage of him in action: iconic moments from famous fights and press conferences and training sessions. His voice is poetic, if not hypnotic, and visually he's amazing. And there's an actual product connection here: Ali wore Adidas boxing boots.
Not surprisingly, therefore, two of the Adidas spots incorporate historical footage. "Long Run" uses Leon Gast's original 16mm film of Ali's legendary morning training session in Zaire in 1974. It's fantastic to see the young-ish man stretching and joking, then running and boxing into the camera. The rub is that the people who accompanied him on his run have been digitally replaced by a current generation of Adidas athletes. A lot of them are European (swimmer Ian Thorpe, runner Haile Gebrselassie, "football" stars David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane), some of whom will be unfamiliar to Americans, but they also include basketball-er Tracy McGrady and Ali's daughter Laila.
Aside from the mystery figures, there is something odd and a bit creepy in the modern recasting. Normally, I'd rather not see great old footage getting doctored. I tend to resist the dehistoricizing of famous figures to sell something—a whole generation of kids could grow up thinking, for example, that Jimi Hendrix almost played the accordion as per Pepsi's Super Bowl ad, though there's no one to blame except Hendrix's estate, I guess.
The spot also has a highly charged voiceover (by Ali's other daughter, Hannah) saying, "Some people listen to themselves rather than to what others say: that there is no 'can't,' 'won't' or 'impossible.' They remind us that it's OK to believe 'impossible is nothing.' " It's the athletic, 21st-century version of Apple's old "Here's to the crazy ones ... the misfits, the rebels." Despite the almost-overwrought verbal build-up, the spot still is moving.
A second commercial, which does not involve Ali, is more controversial. It shows old footage of skateboarding and BMX biking star Stacy Kohut. He says, "When I was a kid, I didn't think anything was impossible." Cut to the present day and he's in a wheelchair, about to do a half-pipe. He says, "It ain't that big a deal, I'm still on four wheels." It's pretty shocking and rests uneasily somewhere between a forceful anti-skateboarding PSA and the "impossible is nothing" message.
By far the best and most powerful of the three spots released so far (several more are due within the month) is "Laila," the commercial that incorporates Ali in the ring, fighting in his prime. (Footage from several bouts was used, including one from Rome in 1960, when he was still Cassius Clay, and the Zaire fight in which he beat George Foreman.) Through the miracle of technology, his opponent is his own daughter. Paging Dr. Freud! This is different from Natalie Cole singing a duet with her dead father. With Laila, is it Oedipal (she wants to kill the father to get the mother), is it Electra (she wants to replace the mother as the wife), or is it not psychological at all? Just a new generation of Alis breaking more boundaries, this time gender?
The sparring is startling (and a bit painful) to watch. Laila gets a few punches into her dad. She has a long voiceover, talking about the impossible, and ends it by saying, "So when my father looks the impossible in the eye and defeats it ... what do you think I'm gonna do when they say women shouldn't box? Rumble, young girl, rumble."
Much as I wanted to resist, it gave me shivers. Talk about the ultimate update for Ali's speech. It's a great, buzz-worthy spot.
This global work seems a bit foreign—it's quite dark, and somber—but it will get noticed. Along those lines, "Impossible is nothing" is clever as a tagline, but it sounds a teeny bit translated from the German. ("Do it, just!" anyone?)