First time I saw Russell Wilson wearing a coat and tie, I thought: Billboard.
Handsome, clean-cut and polished – but possessed of an against-all-odds determination that appeals to anybody labeled “too short” – this guy, I figured, could become Seattle’s most coveted athletic-product pitchman since Ken Griffey Jr., representing Nike, ran for “president” in 1996.
Billboard material? It turns out that I, like everybody else, underestimated Russell Wilson. The only way he measures 5-foot-11 is in platform shoes, and yet he’s caretaker of a legend that’s too tall for a billboard.
Over the next few weeks, Wilson will appear on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC in the latest installment of Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign. The quarterback never mentions the product in the ads – there’s a long version and a short version – which depict Wilson as an admirable person who happens to wear Levi’s clothes as he plays catch with children and walks in the vicinity of the Emerald City’s reliably picturesque landmarks.
“I try to do everything I can to be uncommon – to do something different that nobody else has done before. That’s where I’m headed,” Wilson says at the beginning, before introducing himself: “I’m Russell Wilson, starting quarterback, Seattle.”
True that, although a more comprehensive introduction would have been: “I’m Russell Wilson, third-round pick and 75th overall selection of the 2012 draft, two games into my NFL career.”
Wilson has been vaunted for his quickness. How quick is the Seahawks rookie? About nine years quicker than pro-football icon Jim Brown. He broke into the league in 1957, set a ton of rushing records with the Cleveland Browns, and established himself as one of the greatest athletes in American history. Brown didn’t score his first TV endorsement deal until his final season of 1965.
A rookie who stars in a national ad campaign sets himself up to take some guff from the veterans in the locker room. Not Wilson. He’s mock-proof.
“You have to trust what you believe,” he says in the “Go Forth” spots. “You have to trust who you are. My dad always told me there’s a king in every crowd, you always want to put your best foot forward, you want to be a role model, you want to help every little kid.”
Upon hearing those words, I can’t say I was ready to run to the store to buy some Levi’s. But a tasteful ad that dares to defy hip – that spotlights an NFL player remembering the precious, old-school lessons gleaned from his late father – finds me impressed with both the company and its newest spokesman.
To borrow from the 1960s marketing slogan of a cigarette brand: We’ve come a long way, baby.
Forty years before Wilson was extolling the benefits of self-confidence and parental wisdom during a surprisingly refreshing television commercial, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath slouched on his side to sell Hanes Beautymist pantyhose.
“Now I don’t wear pantyhose,” Namath assured after the camera did a slow pan, from the unrecognizable toes to the familiar face. “But if Beautymist can make my legs look good, imagine what they’ll do for yours.”
In another TV ad, for Noxema, Namath flirted with the astonishingly stunning woman who’d later gain fame as the actress Farrah Fawcett.
“I’m so excited, I’m gonna get creamed,” Namath said to the camera. Upon Farrah’s application of Noxema and a quick shave of the whiskers, Namath concluded to his, uh, friend: “You’ve got a great pair of hands!”
In those days, as now, it paid to be a star making passes in New York. Before Namath showed up to jump-start the dead battery that was the Jets’ franchise, the Giants were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.
An agent was asked if Tittle would be willing to appear in ads promoting a hair tonic. Not likely, the agent answered. Tittle, who was bald in his NFL prime, had minimal credibility as a spokesman for a hair tonic.
As for Wilson, the coast is clear. Between his inspiring work ethic and telegenic charisma, he’s got the freedom to endorse anything and everything.
But I hope Wilson never shills for brands associated with shaving creams and hair tonics. I hope he maintains a noble course on the high road as his body of work in the NFL expands from two games to, like, three or four.
Watching the Levi’s “Go Forth” commercial of Wilson interacting with the public, signing autographs, mingling with kids, I suspect the folks who worked for the marketing department at Nike in 1996 are doing a slow burn right now.
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