Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.
How it came about
The masterminds behind the famous Michael Jordan-Larry Bird commercial had almost total creative freedom while coming up with the spot.
McDonald’s chief marketing officer Paul Schrage only stipulated that he wanted a two-part Super Bowl commercial that promoted the Big Mac and featured the immensely popular Jordan as a celebrity pitchman.
Copywriter Jim Ferguson and art director Bob Shallcross, then the top creative team at Leo Burnett Worldwide, bounced ideas off one-another for days before the premise of a shooting contest dawned on them. In the award-winning spot, Bird challenges Jordan to match him shot for physics-defying shot with a Big Mac and fries at stake.
“It was a very simple idea, but what you find in advertising is that the simple ideas are usually the best,” Ferguson said. “Did we have any idea it was going to become part of pop culture? Hell no, man. You never know what’s going to catch on, but you hit the right time, the right idea, the right stars and sometimes it does.”
Iconic line: “No dunking”
One of the most memorable lines in the commercial is actually an improvisation that director Joe Pytka added to the script during the shoot. “No dunking,” the 36-year-old Bird insists to Jordan in an effort to make the contest fair.
Pytka’s inspiration for that line stems from a game of H-O-R-S-E between him and Jordan during some downtime while shooting a previous commercial. Jordan shot strictly left-handed to give his counterpart a shred of hope of winning.
Relying on a baby hook shot that Jordan struggled to duplicate shooting with his off hand, Pytka managed to extend the game until it was H-O-R-S to H-O-R-S and they were both down to their final letter. That’s when Jordan unleashed a flat-footed dunk that Pytka had no hope of matching.
“That’s not fair!” Pytka told him
Responded the notoriously competitive Jordan, “There’s no way I was going to let you beat me.”
Pytka’s loss popped into his mind when he read the script for the McDonald’s commercial for the first time. He had Bird stipulate no dunking both to poke fun at Jordan and to make the shooting contest more believable with the Celtics star hobbled by lingering back injuries that forced him to retire from the NBA in 1992.
“That’s where that ‘no dunking’ line came from,” Pytka said. “I gave Larry that line because of that.”
What’s the deal with MJ’s outfit?
If he could reshoot the commercial today, Pytka insists he would only change one thing.
He’d find Jordan something else to wear.
Whereas Bird arrived at the first day of filming clad in a sleeveless gray T-shirt and basketball shorts, Jordan showed up in far more colorful get-up. It was an unmistakably early 90s-flavored matching shirt and shorts ensemble better suited for an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air than a basketball game.
Never one to sugarcoat an opinion no matter how high-profile the celebrity, Pytka gestured at Jordan’s outfit and told him, “What the hell is that? You can’t wear that!” Jordan responded that he wasn’t changing, adding that he designed the outfit himself as part of his newly released Nike clothing line.