In pursuit of a marketing splash and desperate for an on-court identity, the Timberwolves have dived into blaxploitation film imagery, “Star Wars” references and good, old-fashioned Zen.
On their road to “rebrand,” as team president Chris Wright puts it, the NBA franchise has delivered an advertising icon named Archibald “Sweetwater” Jones, an apocryphal 3-foot-11 throwback.
“Three-foot-two without the Afro,” says Sweetwater’s co-creator Randy Tatum of the Martin/Williams ad agency.
Sweetwater is that miniature, jive dude you keep seeing on TV, Yoda with street cred and a headband. He wears the number 73 —evoking the 70s, to be sure — while preaching teamwork to a pack of Wolves and balancing — a la Yoda and Luke in “Star Wars” — on the left leg of Randy Foye as the young guard performs a hand stand. (So, that’s how Foye hurt his knee!)
Ad blizzard runs through January
Wright won’t say how much the Wolves paid to produce or buy the time for the blizzard of 30-second spots that will run through January, but, if you’re among the select few who are watching the Wolves on the tube, you’ve been inundated with Sweetwater and the campaign’s ominous tagline: “See What They Can Do.”
Sweetwater comes complete with a fake personal history, including a meet-and-greet with President Gerald Ford and days of meditation with monks in the Himalayas. Go directly to the website for the fiction.
As local sports team ad campaigns go, this one is as extensive and — dare I say — as intellectual as any we’ve seen.
“This is Twins Territory” was an effort to stake a claim that the franchise is as regional as the Red Sox or Cubs (and a pitch to a Legislature that never, in the end, gave a dime for a new ballpark.) “You Made The Team,” the Vikings new slogan, has — if you ponder it — a couple of meanings. Again, at its core, is the incipient lobbying effort for new stadium. The Wild’s “State of Hockey” brand is self-evident.
But diminutive Sweetwater is an in-your-face vehicle for the Wolves to counter what the NBA has become: a league in which individuality — selfishness? — trumps teamwork. Sweetwater is, too, a whimsical attempt to redirect customers from the painful reality that Kevin Garnett is gone. Wright told me the foundation of the Wolves’ rebranding: “Show how team basketball, in the end, can be on its way back.”
Good luck, my man.
Timberwolves’ ‘Sweetwater’ campaign
The legend of Sweetwater
With their mission defined, Tatum and creative partner Steve Casey constructed this African-American pixie who teaches unknown and overmatched young Wolves to focus on the team and be a fam-i-lee.
At first digestion, I winced at the images: puny aging black fellow, shorty-shorts on bod, hawking philosophy to players and tickets to a market that relies, mostly, on Caucasian suburbanites to pay at least $70 a piece for a decent seat.
Should my liberal sensibilities be bothered? Nahhhhhh.
But, just to be sure, I checked in with my own race/culture/sports/media Yoda, Catherine Squires, John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota. Squires seems too erudite to be worrying about the NBA or “Star Wars,” but, I guess, even Ph.D’s have fun.
“I think the commercials are hilarious,” she said, but she does worry about his height. “Why is this man 3 feet tall?” she wondered, suggesting that some critics could interpret that as somehow “emasculation.”
But that was as serious as she allowed herself to get.
Besides, if the team’s marketing guru were a short white dude, Tatum said, “It wouldn’t be believable,” not with the preponderance of black players in the NBA. The ad guys, as Casey put it, didn’t want “something out of ‘Hoosiers.’ “
Squires was impressed by the variety of genres that Tatum and Casey wrapped around Sweetwater, an unorthodox combination that could — could, mind you — sell some tickets.
“There’s this overlap of blaxploitation aesthetics, and a sort of Hong Kong karate film aesthetic,” Squires said. The commercials, she said, “can be read by people who are ‘Star Wars’ fans, by people who are hip-hop fans, by people who are ’70s basketball fans. I think [Tatum and Casey] are tapping into all these things and stirring them into one soup.”
Still, the “See What They Can Do” campaign is inevitably stuck in the NBA’s star-centric quagmire. To wit: The Wolves are now promoting a six-game ticket package. As a come-on, purchasers receive a free ticket … to the Feb. 8 game against the Celtics and Garnett, who was the spirit and face of the team … until Sweetwater’s arrival.