The Unlikely, Stupid, True Story Of The Original ‘Be Like Mike’ Gatorade Commercial
Gatorade brought back their "Be Like Mike" commercial earlier this year, revisiting the iconic 24-year-old gem with a remastered look and a return visit by Michael Jordan himself, rolling it out during All-Star Weekend.
The original is one of the best-known ad campaigns of all time, putting Gatorade on the map, and in a lot of ways coming to define Jordan himself. But what some people don't know is that it's somewhat of a miracle that it ever got made.
This came to my attention when I picked up the book Writing With the Master, by Tony Varderwarker. It's about a former ad agency executive who is tutored through the novel-writing process by John Grisham, who happens to be one of his close friends. It's a candid, somewhat frightening look into what it takes to write a geopolitical thriller. Short explanation: it's not for the meek.
But perhaps the most interesting discovery in the book was that Vanderwarker ran the ad agency that created the original "Be Like Mike" Gatorade commercial. Vanderwarker spent a couple of pages writing about it, revealing:
Gatorade wanted to change the lyrics of the jingle to "Be Like Michael."
Yep. Actually, Quaker Oats wanted the lyrics changed -- as they are the owners of Gatorade. As the final step to the ad being approved, Vanderwarker had to show it to Quaker Oats executives, which was supposed to simply be a formality. But then this happened.
"Since this was the Michael Jordan campaign for Gatorade, and they'd spent millions for him to be their pitchman, the executive vice president wanted a peek before it aired. Everyone convinced me that this was simply a courtesy presentation, no dog-and-pony show necessary. So I took the elevator to the umpty-umpth floor where the top execs lived.
" 'Heard great things about this advertising. Looking forward to seeing it,' the corporate kingpin said as I pushed the cassette into the video player. I ran the commercial once and then at his request, a second, third and fourth time. They guy's face lit up like a little kid. It was infectious and fun to watch. A reggae children's choir sang "We want to be like Mike" while Michael Jordan soared through the air sinking baskets.
" 'That's great. I love it. It's terrific,' he enthused. I figured I was home free until he suddenly went serious. 'Okay, only one comment. And it's non-negotiable.' He paused dramatically. 'We paid sixteen million dollars for the name Michael Jordan so I want you to use his proper name, Michael. Change the lyric to "Be Like Michael." Understood?'
"Be like Michael? Are you effing kidding me? I'd heard stupid comments from clients before. But this one took the cake. ... My agency would become the laughing stock of the industry. Be Like Michael?'
... "Quaker was our biggest client. But my name was on the door, so it was a gamble I had to take. 'Sorry, I can't do that.'
" 'What?' the exec blurted, astonished that someone would refuse his direction.
" 'I can't change it to Be Like Michael.'
" 'Why not?' he stammered.
" 'Because Be Like Michael doesn't rhyme.'
The exec's own brand team must have also known that this was ludicrous, because they convinced their boss to back off gracefully (Michael Jordan's friends all call him Mike, they said. Perhaps a lie). The commercial went on and history was made.
Enter Disney, which also wants to kill the lyrics
The jingle was originally from the jungle. From Sports Business Journal:
BBV Creative Director Bernie Pitzel had recently seen Disney’s “Jungle Book” with his 5-year-old, and the movie became the inspiration for the campaign. Pitzel mixed some Jordan footage from Nike ads with the song “I Want to Be Like You.” The sample ad ended with a message that read, “Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade.”
Steve Seyferth, then running the Gatorade account for BBV, recalls high-fives being exchanged when the sample creative was first shown to Gatorade marketers. Schmidt loved it immediately and promised to check with Jordan on whether it was permissible to call him “Mike” instead of the usual Michael.
Everyone loved it but Disney, which asked for $1 million to license the song.
Disney was eventually talked down to $250,000, but wanted the "Be Like Mike" part removed.
Shortly thereafter, Pitzel sat down at Avanzare, his favorite Chicago watering hole, and penned the lyrics for what became “Be Like Mike” on a cocktail napkin. BBV got the catchy Caribbean tune from a commercial music house. “Be Like Mike” launched Aug. 8, 1991.
Gatorade poached Jordan from Coca-Cola.
Coke thought that bringing on Jordan was a done deal -- they already had 30 big stars signed to endorsement deals. But Gatorade stepped in and out-bid them. It was a sealed bid process, and Quaker offered an average of $1.4 million a year over 10 years. Coke offered five years for much less money.
When Jordan picked Gatorade, Coke came back and tried to renegotiate. But Jordan and his agent, David Falk, refused, saying "a deal's a deal."
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