Companies have been using professional athletes to market their products since before the days of television. Companies use these athletes to build familiarity, trust and value in their products. They know that many customers will be more likely to buy their product if it’s being endorsed by an athlete that the customers like. Approximately one in every five television advertisements in some way use a celebrity.
Companies are using athletes to make more money. Athletes are getting something out of the deal too. The get paid and usually pretty well. If the commercial is memorable enough, it can help the athletes image. Today it seems like getting good commercials is half of an athletes job.
Over the years there have been tons of commercials starring athletes. Some have been really good and some have been really bad. Some have been memorable and some you can’t wait to forget. Some have reached that level beyond memorable. Some athletes are good enough actors that given the right commercial writing and directing, they can rise to a level of greatness.
It takes a lot to make a good commercial, even when it includes an athlete. It takes a team of individuals to really sell the product and make the most of the athlete’s appearance. Here are some of the best commercials starring athletes.
10 Cam Newton
One of the more recent commercials that has been memorable is a commercial spot for NFL Play 60. Play 60 is a campaign where the NFL in encouraging kids to get outside and play for at least 60 minutes every day.
In this commercial, NFL star Cam Newton is encouraging a kid to play so that he can be healthy and strong. The kid asks if he follows Cam’s advice would he grow up to be like him. Newton says sure. They kid runs with the idea eventually saying that he could take Cam Newton's starting job and become the favorite player of Cam Newtons’ mom.
It’s funny and the kid cast is perfect for the commercial. The humor and idea of the commercial was great and for good reason, it received a lot of attention.
9 Jeff Gordon
Pepsi recently brought out a commercial that became an internet craze. It went, as the kids say, viral. Pepsi took the reality show concept with an under cover Jeff Gordon. Gordon takes an unsuspecting car salesman for the test drive of his life. The car salesman reaction is over the top and very funny to watch.
This is one of the few NASCAR driver commercials that has received this level of popularity. The main spread of this was not expensive television spots. It was the spread on the internet and the free spread through social media. It was a smart move by Pepsi and an entertaining commercial too.
8 Yogi Berra
One of the most beloved athletes of all time is former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. In 1987, Yogi appeared in an advertisement for Miller Light. Yogi is known for his quick thinking and his witty comments. Miller Light took advantage of Yogi's gift for gab by having him run off a confusing argument of why to buy their product. It’s funny but easily drives home the main point. It was a great commercial with a lovable sports legend.
This commercial also shows a young Jason Alexander. This was several years before his classic character George Costanza on Seinfeld. He has no lines in this commercial. He appears more as an extra. It’s an interesting side note and entertaining to watch either way.
7 Penny Hardaway
Who is Penny Hardaway? You won’t get much of an answer from todays younger fans. Who is Lil’ Penny? Oh that’s right, he’s the puppet guy in the Nike commercials. When Penny Hardaway was at the peak of his stardom playing with the Orlando Magic, Nike saw a prime opportunity to take advantage of his star power to sell some shoes. They created the character Lil’ Penny. Lil’ Penny is a puppet version of Penny Hardaway. They aired in their first commercial in 1994. It was such a hit with fans and consumers that Nike released a string of follow up commercials for the next four years.
Lil Penny, being voiced by Chris Rock, made several appearances on talk shows, sports broadcasts and even in a song on the Space Jam soundtrack. Recently Nike has been trying to resurrect the Lil Penny campaign. All of this started with one ad in 1994.
6 Donovan Mcnabb
In 2001, Campbell's soup introduced the world to Mama McNabb. The commercial was comparing Campbells soup to the kind of soup a mother gives her growing boy. Initially McNabbs mom was played by an actress, but Campbell's got his real mother to start playing the role in 2002. That spawned a run of Campbell's ads not only with McNabb and “Team Mom,” but with other NFL stars as well.
This commercial campaign became so popular that it was a part of the pop culture, even getting it’s own spoof skit on Saturday Night Live. It also started the notion of the Campbells curse. Similar to the Madden Curse, the rumor was that if a player starred in one of these commercials they would suffer a significant injury that season.
5 Foot Locker Medley
Foot Locker recently released a brilliant commercial. The commercial has an all star cast of athletes including Kyrie Irving, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Brett Favre, Dennis Rodman and Craig Sager. The commercial shows Irving dreaming of all the wrongs being corrected. Tyson returns Holyfields ear, Sager burns his suits, Rodman plans to stay in North Korea and Brett Favre finally learns when to walk away.
Not only is this an all star cast, but the concept is great. It probably wasn’t easy to convince these guys to make fun of themselves, but it’s amazing that they did. This was classic because it highlighted many classic things. In modern times, this is one of the best commercials starring athletes.
4 Peyton Manning
You can’t have an all time great commercials list without including one from one of the most commercial savvy athletes of all time, Peyton Manning. Manning has been in several commercials nationwide. He’s one of the few athletes who reaches a level of greatness without getting a lot of the dislike from fans of other teams.
One of the more memorable Peyton commercials comes from the Peyton Pep Talk commercial series for Mastercard. In this series, Peyton gave short pep talks to the average guy. This was funny because Peyton is far from the average guy. He’s a multi-millionaire and a professional athlete. One of the first two released had Manning giving marriage advice. Manning gives a pep talk about how to deal with the spouse when you’re having a fight. He compares it to how they handle a fight in the locker room.
Not only were these commercials funny. They were also designed to be interactive. There were 12 of them filmed. Mastercard encouraged viewers and customers to go to their website where they could add a personal message and send it to a friend or family member. A sort of funny greeting card in the digital world.
3 Larry Bird and Michael Jordan
In 1993, McDonald's revealed a Super Bowl commercial of two guys playing HORSE for a Big Mac meal. No big deal. People have been playing HORSE in gyms and driveways for years. This game was a little unusual. First of all, it was a game between two of the biggest NBA stars of that time, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Secondly, it was impossible. The game started as a simple game in the gym. Both players hitting all of their shots. Both players wanting desperately to win the Big Mac. Then both players start making crazy and unrealistic shots.
It’s a good commercial that puts two rivals against each other over their product. This is a great example of marketing desire for what you are selling. It also caught on. Like many other great commercials it sparked a series of commercials and eventually, Charles Barkley got in on the action. In 2010, McDonald's tried to revive this campaign with LeBron James and Dwight Howard, but it didn't have as much success as the original. The copy is never as good as the original.
2 "Mean" Joe Greene
There are people today who remember "Mean" Joe Greene, but can’t recall a single game he played. Instead they remember him as the guy who said, “Hey kid, Catch” as he threw a young fan his jersey. This was such a good ad for several reasons but one of them was because of the character. Joe Greene got his name “Mean” because of his attitude and ability on the field.
One of the hardest hitting defensive players to ever play the game was being portrait as a soft, likable guy. It was a shift in the way fans saw this monster of a player. Many people would place this commercial as one of the best, if not the best, Super Bowl commercials of all time. What many people don’t realize is that this commercial was not originally aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial was first seen during the 1979 Major League Baseball Playoffs and not aired again until a few months later during Super Bowl XIV.
This commercial was written well. It showed a side of an athlete that most had never seen before. It captured fans hearts and lives on today. This add is replayed and talked about several times before every Super Bowl. It raised the legend of Mean Joe Greene to a new level.
1 Michael Jordan
Going into the 1990’s, Gatorade didn't have any stars helping them compete in the advertising wars. They decided to go big. They went after Michael Jordan. Jordan was previously with the Coca-Cola company, but Gatorade gave him an offer that he couldn't refuse. They reached a deal in 1991. For an agreement to leave Coca-Cola and be the solitary spokesman for Gatorade, they offered Jordan $1.4 million a year. That doesn't sound like a lot now, but back then, it was huge.
In 1991, Gatorade wanted to get as much out of this endorsement as they could. They brought in Director Bernie Pitzel. Pitzel had an idea for a commercial based off the song “I Want to Be Like You” from the Disney movie, “Jungle Book.”
That idea eventually turned into the the song and slogan “Be Like Mike.” In August of 1991, Gatorade came out with the most iconic commercial starting an athlete of all time. Be Like Mike skyrocketed Gatorade. Not only were they competing in the ad wars, they were now leaving everyone in their dust. Today the phrase “Be Like Mike” is known and referenced over 20 years later. Jordan's career was blowing up around the same time. This commercial helped him raise to a new level of stardom. Because of it’s quality, effectiveness and long lasting impact, this is the number one commercial starring an athlete.