At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month in Las Vegas, one man towered above the crowd. At 7’1” and over 300 pounds, Shaquille O’Neal—better known as just Shaq—dominated the NBA for nearly two decades. Since retiring in 2011, the Diesel has only grown his presence in households across the world.
He’s a commentator on TNT’s halftime show Inside the NBA, but when the show moves to a commercial break Shaq often doesn’t leave the screen. His face has appeared in 7-Eleven beverage coolers and Zales jewelry cases. Shaq’s ads over the years have ranged from funny, like this series of 2018 ads with Oreo, to heartwarming, like this partnership with Zappos for underprivileged kids on Christmas, to just plain bizarre with GoDaddy’s Twitter page and cheese sculptures of his head.
He’s the “Chief Fun Officer” for Carnival Cruise Line, a popular GIF thanks to his Gold Bond ads, and he’s the newest board member for Papa John’s to help the pizza brand reinvent its image post-racism scandal. In Vegas, Shaq was on the show floor with longtime brand partner Ring.
So why do companies from cruise lines to credit cards continue to bring out The Diesel to represent their brands?
“It’s all about humility. Even though I was an animal on the court, I still did things with humility,” Shaq told Adweek. “When it comes to real life, it’s ‘Yes sir,’ ‘How you doing, buddy?’ ‘Come on over here, kid.’ There are two types of superstars: touchable and untouchable. I’m touchable.”
“For as intimidating as he is on the court, he is approachable off of it,” said Dave Rosenberg, chief brand officer at GMR Marketing. “His ability to never change who he is, to have fun with the product and with himself, that consistency is what brands love.”
While some brands may be searching for the larger-than-life spokesperson to elevate their status, many others want a person who feels relatable. Shaq is a rare athlete who is both. On the court, he was larger than life (and most of the NBA); off the court, he isn’t afraid to joke around and make faces that can turn into memes on social media. That duality gives brands of all types a way to connect.
Even if it feels like Shaq is always on TV when commercials come on, he says he’s pretty selective about the companies he works with.
“I only promote products I believe in,” he explained. “I can’t take your money as a man, or as a businessman, if I don’t believe in your product. I get offers from a lot of people all the time. I’ve turned down probably half a million dollars just because I didn’t know enough about the product, or I never tried it, or I wasn’t comfortable.”
Still, even if he believes in all the products he endorses, there can be a point where his return as a brand spokesman diminishes.
“I think there is a saturation point,” said Whitney Wagoner, director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “If there’s too much, then fans and consumers can begin to wonder, ‘What does he really stand for then?’”
Over a nearly three-decade career in and around the NBA, Shaq has built plenty of natural relationships with brands he works with. Take American Express: He’s been a spokesman for the company since 2016, but his relationship with Amex actually began in 2008 after Shaq was traded to the Phoenix Suns.
With an empty apartment and a hefty new contract, Shaq was trying to buy $70,000 worth of furniture and appliances from Walmart. As the story goes, his card was declined twice before the fraud detection team at Amex called him in the Walmart checkout line and sorted things out.
“We absolutely love working with Shaq,” said Deborah Curtis, vp of global brand experiences at American Express. “On top of that, the passion and energy he brings to projects have made for an amazing relationship. He built an extraordinary career as an NBA athlete, then expanded his career into business, and we’ve been proud to have his back along the way.”
But more impressive than the binder full of brand work is how Shaq has avoided the negative spotlight waiting for a miscue. Papa John’s brought him on to help change its image, and Shaq demanded a seat at the table if he was going to work with the company. Compare that with Jay-Z working with the NFL, a move that brought backlash from all corners of the internet. Both are uber-celebrities coming from black communities helping major brands change their image while dealing with racial controversy, but only one incurred some backlash.
In the NBA, LeBron James made a rare miscue when talking about China, while Shaq addressed the issue head-on during the opening night of the NBA season.
“They know and understand our values,” he said, sitting on the left of the Inside the NBA panel. “One of our best values in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say, and we’re allowed to speak up on injustices, and that’s just how it goes.”
“Shaq has maintained a very clean persona over all the years he has been in front of the media,” Rosenberg said. “As a company looking for a brand ambassador, you want someone not just for the commercial but someone you can trust when he is in the public’s eye. That’s a very important part of why brands keep coming back to Shaq.”