For Michael Jordan, success as a pitchman required a form of colorblindness
His commercials projected a ‘virtual integration’ in which Jordan became the imaginary playmate of white fans
In this excerpt from his new book, Jumpman, the Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan, author Johnny Smith examines the cultural background and compromises involved in a Black athlete like Jordan becoming a pitchman for corporate America.
It seemed that everybody loved Michael Jordan and what he represented. His agent David Falk recognized before anyone else Jordan’s potential for fulfilling an American ideal. In 1987, after Jordan’s appearance on 60 Minutes, Falk told Sports Illustrated, “If you were to create a media athlete and star . . . spectacular talent, midsized, well-spoken, attractive, accessible, old-time values, wholesome, clean, natural, not too goody two-shoes, with a little bit of deviltry in him — you’d invent Michael. He’s the first modern crossover in team sports. We think he transcends race.”
Jordan was not the first Black athlete praised for transcending race. Ambitious and entrepreneurial, O. J. Simpson created the paradigm for the crossover athlete coveted on Madison Avenue. Simpson consciously sought white approval and corporate acceptance, demonstrating disdain toward anything that seemed too political. In the late 1960s, when he first emerged as a national football star at the University of Southern California, he rejected the Black Power movement and dismissed the debate around Black athletes boycotting the 1968 Olympics in protest against racism. While the “revolt of the Black athlete” disrupted the sports world, Simpson acted as a counterrevolutionary, suppressing within himself any expression of Black rage.
His breakthrough as a corporate spokesman occurred because he presented himself as a “good Negro,” an advertisement for a colorblind America. Simpson’s fans found him charming, affable, and unthreatening. Before he played a single game in the National Football League, he signed endorsement deals with Chevrolet and RC Cola. In 1975, when Hertz built a national advertising campaign around him, the rental car company’s consumer surveys indicated that people perceived Simpson as “colorless.” A Hertz advertising executive later explained, “People thought of O. J. Simpson as O. J. Simpson, not O. J. Simpson, the black athlete.” White America’s imprimatur filled Simpson with pride. “My biggest accomplishment,” he said in 1969, “is that people look at me as a man first, not a black man.”
Twenty years later, Jordan echoed Simpson’s colorblind rhetoric. “Sometimes I think I’m looked upon as not just as a black person, but as a person,” he said. “And I think that’s totally new ground for us — and for society. I’m happy to be a pioneer. When I say, ‘Don’t think of me as white or black,’ all I’m saying is: View me as a person.” Jordan aimed to define his place in America more as an individual than as an ambassador for his race. Maintaining his esteemed reputation across racial lines, venerated for being articulate, wholesome, and intelligent, required that he defy the fallacy that Black men did not possess those traits. Thus, the narratives about Jordan transcending race reflected a larger myth: that once he conquered the country’s racial barriers, he became liberated from his skin color, which made him more American and more heroic.
Some white people believed that embracing Jordan meant they didn’t see skin color. Under this line of thinking, they hardly even noticed race or cared about racial differences anymore. But identifying someone’s race was not the problem. The problem with colorblindness — denying the existence of race — was that it allowed people to deny the persistence of racism. By the early 1980s, surveys indicated that 90 percent of whites believed that Black and white children should attend the same schools, 71 percent opposed segregated neighborhoods, and 80 percent said that they would support a Black candidate for president — profound signs that white Americans supported racial equality. But the reality was that white Americans’ love affair with Jordan and other Black celebrities did little to erase stereotypes of Black people. In 1989, an ABC/Washington Post survey indicated that three-quarters of white people believed it was “common sense,” not racial prejudice, to avoid Black neighborhoods. A year later, a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago revealed that most white people believed that Black folks were more likely to be lazy, less intelligent, less patriotic, and more violent than white people, belying the notion that colorblindness had washed over the country.
In Jordan’s America, colorblindness meant different things to different people. Liberals linked colorblindness to racial equality and legal protections against the institutionalization of white supremacy, while conservatives viewed it as a means of promoting meritocratic values and rolling back the advancements of the civil rights movement. Focusing on race, conservatives argued, robbed people of their individuality and gave unnecessary advantages to particular groups — especially Black Americans. Opposing affirmative action, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared, “We want a colorblind society — a society that in the words of Dr. King judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Distorting King’s message, Reagan did not mention the fact that the slain civil rights leader devoted his life to fighting against white supremacy or that he advocated for affirmative action programs.
Yet for many Americans, Black and white alike, colorblindness offered a meaningful aspiration that all people should strive toward, including Jordan. He told a Chicago Tribune writer that his parents raised him to be colorblind. “I never see you for the color,” he said. “I don’t look at you as black or white, just as a person.” He also said that he had not encountered racial barriers in his professional career, a comforting notion for white fans who appreciated that he did not harbor racial resentment. His popularity, together with Magic Johnson’s, proved to NBA commissioner David Stern that the league had resolved its racial dilemma. Although the racial composition of the NBA had not changed much since the mid-1970s, no one complained that the league was “too Black” anymore. It seemed that the real trouble for white critics was not so much that there were too many Black players but that the NBA lacked the right kind of Black players. In 1990, when a reporter asked Stern if racism made it difficult for the NBA to attract white fans, he replied, “It’s a dead issue; our fans grow up colorblind.”
Corporate executives agreed with Stern. “The public, especially young people, is colorblind in terms of its athletic heroes,” said David Green, a senior vice president with McDonald’s. In the late 1980s, Jordan’s sponsors — McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Chevrolet — repeatedly relayed this message in his commercials. In Chevy’s Chicagoland promotions, seen across the city and its surrounding suburbs, two young friends, one white, one Black, encounter their hero. In one spot, the boys meet at Chicago Stadium, where they race to their seats, smiling widely, knowing they will see Jordan play. Chevy was not selling a specific car in the ad. Rather, the main theme is that Jordan, like Chevrolet, represents “the heartbeat of America.” In another commercial, the boys meet Jordan at night on a city street before he drives away in his shiny red Blazer. Similarly, McDonald’s told the story of Jordan joining an integrated group of kids at a local franchise. Surrounded by children, Jordan appeared approachable and friendly, the kind of hero parents could trust with their kids. For Coca-Cola, Jordan played the good neighbor, delivering a six-pack of soda to three friends playing in a tree house. Wearing his white-and-red Air Jordans, he comes running out of his mother’s home, cradling the cans like a basketball. While his real mother, Deloris, cheers him from her front-porch rocking chair, Jordan leaps into the air, stretching toward the top of the tree house and delivering Coca-Cola to three ecstatic boys.
In each of the commercials, children bond around Jordan. Watched together, the ads communicate a simple message that he had already expressed in numerous interviews: “I don’t believe in race. I believe in friendship.” Jordan did not just move American products. He sold a story of racial integration, linking corporations to democratic ideals. If white Americans once saw O. J. Simpson as a Black role model for erasing racism, Jordan followed in his footsteps. For years, Blacks athletes had enjoyed commercial endorsements, but none before Jordan were truly marketed as a galvanizing force for racial unity.
His commercials — and NBA broadcasts — projected a kind of “virtual integration,” where Black athletes like Jordan became the imaginary playmates of white fans. Television created an artificial experience, giving white Americans the feeling of having meaningful contact with Black people without having social interactions with them in real life. The medium brought Jordan into millions of American living rooms, turning him into someone people believed they really knew. Reflecting on the fabricated images of Black people on television, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote, “When American society could not successfully achieve the social reformation it sought in the ’60s through the Great Society, television solved the problem simply by inventing symbols of that transformation in the ’80s.”
Much of Jordan’s appeal derived from the fact that he seemed to really be like the innocent, joyful guy he played on television. “He’s told us over the past few years to drink Coke, wolf Big Macs, drive Chevrolets, wear Nikes, apply Johnson products, sport Guy Laroche watches, bounce Wilson basketballs, don Bigsby & Kruthers suits, not drive drunk, stay off drugs, work hard, be happy and listen to our parents,” GQ’s David Breskin wrote in 1989. “People are not only awed by Michael Jordan, they like him. They believe him.”
By 1990, Michael Jordan had become a ubiquitous figure. His name could be found in a hundred daily newspapers and his face appeared virtually everywhere: on television, T-shirts, trading cards, billboards, posters, advertisements, and magazine covers. Most important, he had become a national symbol, a bridge between white America and Black America, evoking the nation’s past and its promise for a better future. Writing for Esquire, Black novelist John Edgar Wideman suggested that for some people, Jordan “is proof that there are no rules about race, no limits to what a black man can accomplish in our society. Or maybe he’s the exception that proves the rule, the absence of rules.” American desires for a Black star who could transcend the country’s complex racial history helped transform Jordan into a national hero. For the celebrants who claimed that the Bulls star made “us rise above our obsession with race,” Jordan provided a reprieve from the troubles of the world.
Soon, though, he would discover that escaping the country’s racial dilemma was about as easy as slipping out of a straitjacket.
Excerpted from Jumpman: The Making and Meaning of Michael Jordan, by Johnny Smith. Copyright 2023. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.