Aug. 8, 1991.
Twenty-five years ago, one of the most famous commercials of all time debuted: Gatorade’s “Be Like Mike.” Fans of a certain age are probably already hearing the jingle in their head. While the commercial is famous, the story of how the spot came to be isn’t told as much. But it’s just as good as the commercial itself.
Executives at Gatorade, then owned by Chicago-based Quaker Oats, were head-over-heels for good reason — they’d just stolen their hometown star from Coca-Cola, fresh off his first championship. Quaker paid a hefty price to land Michael Jordan — a 10-year, $13.5 million deal and the promise that he would be the beverage’s only endorser.
Days before the first commercial was to debut, advertising exec Bernie Pitzel, who had come in late in the process, got a preview of the spot that was already approved.
Pitzel was honest. He thought it was awful. It merely featured highlights of Jordan dunking, something that Nike had shown countless times in its spots with Jordan over the previous six years.
Pitzel wanted a chance to do something iconic. OK, the Gatorade execs said. Idea to final version in three days.
Pitzel’s original idea was to show kids looking up to Jordan while playing the song “I Wan’na Be Like You,” from the 1967 film “The Jungle Book” that Disney had recently re-released. But Pitzel said Disney wanted Gatorade to pay $350,000 for a five-week run. At the time, the cost was too much.
So Pitzel went back to the drawing board, sat down at his favorite Italian restaurant and came up with the “Be Like Mike” lyrics on a napkin in four hours. Pitzel put the lyrics to four local music houses and quickly settled on jingle specialists Ira Antelis and Steve Shafer.
The result was the commercial song that the world came to love, which was then paired with Jordan and kids, who quickly shot the spot to go with it. The rest is history.
“If we had used music from The Jungle Book, the advertisement would have been forgotten,” Antelis told me for my book on Gatorade, “First In Thirst.”
“Instead, we generated a piece of music that we could own that the world could identify with Gatorade.”
While the commercial was lauded throughout the world, it actually didn’t translate to dollars and cents. People loved it, but the efficacy of the product wasn’t featured, which meant that the original spot might have been better for sales, but not for fans of Jordan.
“When we brought it back to real highlights and Michael sweating, it worked better,” said Gatorade marketer Peggy Dyer.
Widely acclaimed sports commercials that actually don’t do what they were intended to do — sell product — are actually quite common. Mean Joe Greene’s 1979 Coca-Cola spot with the young kid is often called the greatest sports commercial of all time. Coke commissioned athletes in various countries to play a role similar to Greene’s but halted the project when the company determined that the spots didn’t actually help sell soda.