To the victors go the spoils, and in professional sports that includes promotional opportunities.
Two NBA teams have more than one player featured in national television advertisements promoting something other than sports coverage or sneakers. One is the defending champion Miami Heat, with reigning MVP LeBron James and nine-time All-Star Dwyane Wade.
The other is the Clippers, whose highflying Lob City act has made them among the most entertaining teams in the league, and who are winning at a franchise-record pace for a second consecutive season.
Blake Griffin appears for Kia cars, Chris Paul for State Farm Insurance.
Griffin’s current Kia commercial is called “Back to the Future.” In it, he sternly lectures his younger self.
Young Blake starts off by asking himself, “Who are you?” The reply: “I’m you in the future.”
Later, today’s Blake tells his younger self: “Stop wearing jean shorts. Just trust me.” The implication: While jean shorts are not cool, sleek Kia automobiles are very cool.
Paul’s State Farm commercial is titled “Born to assist” and features a character introduced as Paul’s twin brother, Cliff.
Paul dishes assists to basketball teammates while Cliff — also played by Paul, wearing thick black glasses — assists State Farm customers when tragedy strikes.
“When assisting is in your blood, find a State Farm agent born to get you to a better state,” the narrator says.
The players earned the advertising gigs having scored promotional power in what’s called a Q rating. The scores are said to measure name recognition and the public’s perception of a particular person.
Griffin’s and Paul’s numbers have risen along with the Clippers’ winning percentage.
Last year about this time, Griffin had an awareness rating of 55% and a positive likability rating, or Q rating, of 18. Paul had 58% awareness and a 14 Q score. To compare, the average NBA player got a 52 awareness rating and a 13 Q score, according to Henry Shafer, president of the Q Scores Co., which crunches the numbers for interested companies.
This year, Griffin’s Q score rose to 19, Paul’s to 18 — better than most non-athlete celebrities, who average 16.
“Winning is a huge help,” Shafer said.
Indeed, some of the biggest winners in sports are also among the most popular pitchmen.
Olympic swim champion Michael Phelps endorsed Subway, among other products. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has done commercials for Uggs footwear, Stetson cologne and Dodge Dart. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has his own State Farm ad. And Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has earned as much tube time as many actors.
Part of the reason Manning is popular, says Jim Riswold, who wrote the Spike Lee-Michael Jordan commercials, is that the quarterback is almost as adept operating in front of a camera as he is calling plays at the line of scrimmage.
David Schwab, who, as an executive for Octagon, helps brands figure out their celebrity strategies, says what separates Manning from the rest is his “fantastic natural timing” — which also helps in his day job.
But not all athletes are as smooth on set as they are on a playing field or court.
“I’ve always approached a spot with an athlete with the idea that they are athletes first and actors 10th,” writer Riswold said. “So, the less acting the better chance of success.”
The Kia and State Farm campaigns were designed after conversations between the athletes and advertising executives revealed potential approaches that might work.
“At the very beginning we sat down and talked my life story,” Griffin said. “I think from that came the idea of this series, ‘Blake goes back to the future.’”
Griffin said at one point in the conversation he mentioned jean shorts, and the image apparently resonated with someone in the room.
Emily Sander, an associate creative director for the company, Translation, that conceived Paul’s dual personalities for State Farm, said her team had its “aha” moment when it pondered the “intersection point” between State Farm and the NBA.
“Sometimes you land on something that becomes so obvious,” she said. “The simplest ideas can be the best, and the idea of the assist and assisting was natural.
“We boiled it down ... when you make it a metaphor for point guards who help teammates and agents who help policy holders, it became that simple.”
And the best person to tell that story: one of the best assist men in the NBA.
Paul loves the ad, and so does his son, Chris Paul II.
“I’ll put on the Cliff glasses at home and little Chris runs around and says, ‘Cliff, where’s my daddy?’” Paul said. “Then I’ll go in another room and take off the glasses and he’ll say, ‘Daddy, where’s Cliff?’”
Another fan of the ad is Tim Van Hoof, assistant vice president of marketing for State Farm.
“Chris, this is what he does,” Van Hoof said. “He’s a point guard in control, but he also assists. He elevates the game, and that’s what we want our agents to be seen as, people who assist and elevate your life.”
Griffin brought his connection with Kia to the 2011 NBA All-Star game, where he won the dunk contest by leaping over the hood of an Optima after catching a pass out of the car’s sunroof from teammate Baron Davis.
So what’s next?
“I get people all the time asking me what I’ll do next,” Griffin said. “Will I ride another animal, jump over a bigger car? It’s just a blast.”
The NBA’s regular season has been a kick too — at least so far.
With Paul at the controls and Griffin his usual spectacular self, the Clippers are winning at a .696 pace — far better than the franchise-record .606 winning percentage of last season’s team.
It might be enough for Clippers fans to hold out hope that their favorite tandem might be seen during the NBA Finals as often as the last L.A.-based dynamic basketball duo who starred in national advertisements.
That would be Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
They not only appeared during commercials, they won three NBA championships together.