Michael Jackson Starts Selling L.A. Gear's Soles


Michael Jackson is about to do some hard sell in soft shoes.

Of course, hard sell for Jackson is just touching a product in an ad. He never has before. But later this week, the pop star will walk, dance and even pantomime in a pair of "MJ" athletic shoes in his first TV commercial for L.A. Gear.

In the ad, Jackson--who refused to so much as touch a Pepsi can in all of his Pepsi spots--is happily strapped into an $80 pair of L.A. Gear black athletic shoes with silver buckles.

But unlike with former sponsor Pepsi, Jackson has more than a cash deal at stake with L.A. Gear: Part of his estimated $20-million contract with the athletic shoe maker includes options to purchase an undisclosed amount of L.A. Gear stock.

The highly stylized spot is sure to be provocative. Jackson doesn't sing or speak in it. Nor does the commercial have any typical Jackson music. What it does have is plenty of close-ups of the performer's L.A. Gear-decked feet. There is just one close-up of Jackson's face--as he transforms a dark alley into an electrically charged set.

"We wanted something uniquely different from the 500 different ads people see every week," said Sandy Saemann, executive vice president of marketing at the Marina del Rey company. "This is not your average commercial."

The back-to-school ad, which the company said cost about $700,000 to produce, was filmed last month in a tightly secured alley off Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles. Much like Jackson's actions in the "Captain Eo" film that he created for Disney, he once again appears to be controlling the forces of nature in the spot. Jackson even seems to be the catalyst for a lone street light that flicks on--and eventually explodes.

All of this apparent magic is quietly observed by a little girl from an apartment window. The girl, played by Jackson's 8-year-old niece, Brandi, ends the commercial by applauding as a surprised Jackson beams a smile toward her.

At one time, L.A. Gear officials had hoped to time the release of Jackson's planned greatest hits album and a new music video with the introduction of the shoe line. But Jackson is reportedly way behind on both music projects, and the album may not be released until spring.

Why the delay? Responded Saemann: "That's a question you'll have to ask Michael."

Still, L.A. Gear officials hope Jackson's magic will rub off on their company. In late June, the company reported a 36% drop in second-quarter profit despite a 33% increase in sales over the same quarter of the previous year. It was L.A. Gear's worst earnings report since the company went public in 1986. And its stock, which last year hit a record high of $50.375 on the New York Stock Exchange, closed Friday at $20.75.

Just how might this new Jackson line of shoes affect sales--and L.A. Gear's stock performance?

"There's no where to go but up," responded Saemann.

Several athletic shoe industry experts tend to agree with him. "The trend in the athletic shoe market is toward a flashier, more upbeat look," said Dick Silverman, editor of the New York trade publication Footwear News. "I don't see any reason why these shoes shouldn't be extremely successful."

The shoes have been available at Foot Locker stores for several weeks. Sales have been relatively slow, but one store manager says that is basically because the ads haven't started to run yet.

"Let's face it," said Tony Gee, manager of the Foot Locker store at South Coast Plaza. "Michael Jackson sells a lot of records. I don't see why he won't sell a lot of shoes."

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