The Rose That Grew From Madison Avenue: Adidas, Powerade and the Marketing of Derrick Rose

…late-capitalist economic practices…led to deindustrialization and the decline of black urban communities in the post-World War II United States [and] also produced the black basketball star as a commodity and an object of desire for mass consumption…  (Gitanja Maharaj:1997, 98).

The Coca-Cola owned sports drink brand Powerade’s 2015 advertising campaign centers around the duel taglines “Just a Kid” and “We are All Just a Kid from Somewhere.” The ads feature a range of professional athletes. Among the athletes featured are; football player Jimmy Graham, “just a kid from Goldsboro,” hockey player Steve Stamkos, “just a kid from Ontario,” and baseball player David Ortiz, as “just a kid from Santo Domingo.” NBA player Derrick Rose is featured in a television commercial which began airing in February. The Rose commercial is entitled “Rose from concrete,” and bills him as “just a kid from Chicago.”

The majority of the athletes featured in the commercials play for American professional sports leagues. The campaign plays upon the notion of the “American Dream,” the mythical belief that in the United States, anyone can start from humble beginnings and attain wealth and possibly fame. The Rose commercial also plays upon the core false narratives and stereotypes that have come to be linked with African-American NBA players. Among them:

  1. the players mainly emerge from poor black urban communities (i.e., from Akron, Ohio, and Carmelo Anthony from Baltimore, Maryland, the now retired Allen Iverson from Hampton, Virginia)
  2. the majority are the products of ‘broken homes’ made up of single mothers and absent fathers
  3. through sheer talent, hard work and personal resolve alone they overcome poverty

The 60-second Rose Powerade commercial uses the voice of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, reciting a stanza from Shakur’s poem “The Rose that grew from the concrete.” The commercial opens with a young actor portraying young Derrick Rose in his bedroom in Chicago. Young Derrick will symbolically journey on his bicycle from the impoverished South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, fueled by Powerade, to NBA stardom. The choice of Tupac Shakur’s “Rose that grew from concrete,” of course is a play on Derrick’s last name. The choice of Shakur is also connected to the Hip-Hop cultural cachet attached to Shakur, who died at the age of 25.  Shakur is now a cultural icon, he represents rebellion, black cool, and a particular brand of black hyper-masculinity. The commercial uses the last stanza of the recorded version of Shakur’s poem:

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete

had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its

tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.

Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are

my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why, thank God nigga, ask me how!

The commercial omits the line “thank God nigga.” A shorter version of this poem appears in Shakur’s posthumous collection of poetry, entitled The Rose that grew From Concrete, published in 1999. The version of the poem that appears in the book consists of eight lines and does not include the stanza that Shakur is heard reciting in the commercial. The book offers a photocopy of Shakur’s handwritten version of the poem, where Shakur identifies the poem as “Autobiographical.”

A biography of Derrick Rose is what the Powerade commercial purports to offer. Derrick Rose was born in 1988, Shakur was born in 1971 and died in 1996. Rose was eight years old when Shakur died. The commercial attempts to construct a link between Shakur, who has been deceased for nearly 20 years and the 27-year-old Rose. In the video documenting the making of the commercial Rose states, “I loved Pac for what he stood for, he stood for something more than music, he knew where he was at in this life, he knew where he wanted to go.” Rose never shares what exactly he believes Shakur stood for. It is clear that the association with Shakur is something that is desired by Rose. The fictionalized biography of Rose that the commercial offers, is really a corporate construct of black masculinity. It is a false narrative which depends on an essentialized, simplistic concept of black manhood in urban America.

The corporate co-option of Hip-Hop is highly visible in sports related marketing. Hip-Hop music has emerged from the South Bronx of the 1970s to become a global commodity of the 21st century, utilized by Madison Ave advertising firms to hawk everything from hamburgers to automobiles. The Rose Powerade commercial was crafted by the Portland, Oregon based, global advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy. The agency has offices in New York and Brazil as well as other major cities. On the Wieden + Kennedy website, the agency describes the idea behind the Rose ad as, “[no] matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.”

While Madison Ave, like the NBA, once shunned Hip-Hop, it has now engaged in a corporate embrace of Hip-Hop music and many of its cultural elements. Sociologist Celia Lury writes that “Nike makes extensive use of the marketing technique of personification, in which the properties of a product…are associated with the characteristics of a person” (2004, Loc 2075). It can be argued that companies such as Nike, Adidas and in this case Powerade, are making use of the now common marketing technique of Hip-Hop personification. In this process the identified elements of Hip-Hop culture—blackness, urbanity, youth, authenticity, hyper-masculinity—that are imagined to be embodied in the black athlete are transferred from the athlete to the product being advertised. The Rose Powerade commercial attempts to use this technique of Hip-Hop personification, however, Rose may not necessarily be perceived to embody all these Hip-Hop related elements. Shakur also serves the purpose in the commercial of helping to enhance Rose’s Hip-Hop authenticity.

The commercial offers a “single story” (Adichie: 2013), narrative of the contemporary black male experience in urban America. This single story approach to the black male urban experience features an archetypal black male athletic hero. This archetypal black male athletic hero’s story always begins in an urban impoverished black metropolis. In the case of Derrick Rose, it is the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. Through the gift of this archetypal black male athletic hero’s talent, his work ethic, his resistance to the temptations of the ‘Hood,’ gangs and drug dealing, he is able to escape the ‘urban ghetto.’ It is not government social programs that allow his escape from poverty and his dire community. According to the scripted advertising narrative, it is solely through the athlete’s own tenacity and effort that he rises from the imagined ghetto. The Rose Powerade commercial follows the script quite closely, depicting Rose as the archetypal black athletic hero, rising from Chicago’s impoverished South Side. In addition to his own tenacity, young Rose, starts out with a bottle of Powerade which is stored in his backpack as he rides on his bicycle through a neighborhood where multiple visual cues of urban decay are displayed.

The commercial opens with the young Rose in his small bedroom which has a twin bed with no headboard or footboard. Clothes are strewn about. He walks into the kitchen, where a woman, presumably his mother, is taking care of a basket full of laundry. We never see this woman’s face. There is no father present. Young Rose places a bottle of Powerade in his backpack and he departs on his bicycle. No neighborhood friends join Rose on this journey through the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood scenery presented is that of the type of urban decay which is often depicted in music videos and films set in the inner city. Rose rides on streets with cracked asphalt, we see broken fences and garbage strewn about. Young Rose stops in the middle of the street and looks back at his impoverished neighborhood, and then he continues his solitary journey towards fame and fortune.

In the next visual, young Rose finds himself standing outside of the United Center Arena, the home arena of Chicago Bulls, the team for which Rose plays. He starts walking towards the arena. The scene dissolves into the adult Derek Rose, who is now inside the arena walking onto court. Rose is wearing a jacket, with the Adidas logo on his upper sleeve. His own Derrick Rose logo which incorporates the letter D placed in the center on an outline of a rose is on the front of his jacket. According to Forbes magazine “Each leaf of the rose on the…logo represents Rose in a unique way. The three leaves, or rose pedals, represent each of his older brothers. The No. 1 in the middle not only signifies his jersey number, but also his mother.” The Rose logo was crafted by Adidas and appears on Rose’s signature Adidas shoe collection. The logo design and the Powerade commercial aim for authenticity and intimacy by purporting to offer the consumer not just a product, but a personal piece of Derrick Rose.

In 2011, Rose was named the league MVP, the youngest ever, and his team the Chicago Bulls made it to the NBA Eastern Conference finals where they faced LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In 2012, Adidas signed Derrick Rose to a 13-year, $185 million endorsement deal. In Rose, Adidas thought they had found the superstar athlete who could help them steal some market share from Nike. Rose’s appeal was not merely his athletic talent and performance on the basketball court, but also his back story. Rose’s story of being from the South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which has been described as being “one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods,” and being raised by a single mother, also made him appealing. Adidas certainly hoped that Rose could do for them what a former Chicago Bulls player, Michael Jordan, had done for Nike, in terms of increasing the sales of Adidas sneakers.

With his endorsement deals with companies such as Adidas, Giordana’s pizza chain and the Coca-Cola owned Powerade, Derrick Rose has become a “commodity and an object…for mass consumption,” (Maharaj: 1997). Rose has sustained a range of devastating injuries over the last three years. These injuries have stymied Rose’s career. Rose has missed more games than he has played, in the last three years. A successful ingredient for the marketability of NBA athletes from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant and to LeBron James, has been winning. Each of these three players has won at least two NBA championships. Since 2011, Rose and the Chicago Bulls have not even made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Rose is a full participant in the process of making him into a commodity, as evidenced by the creation of his own logo, which is not just meant to sell more sneakers, but in the larger context to build and further promote the Derrick Rose brand.

The Powerade commercial is unable to completely suppress Shakur’s intended meaning from his words and voice. Shakur’s poetic intentions subtly shadows the commercial. We hear Shakur’s voice reciting:

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete

had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its

tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.

Well, we are the rose – this is the concrete – and these are

my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why,… ask me how!

The commercial promotes a narrative of personal responsibility, where institutionalized racism, deindustrialization, mass incarceration and welfare reform, poor public schools, all of  which form and impact neighborhoods like Englewood, Chicago, are ignored.  Shakur’s poem is about how he and other young black men responded to the conditions of urban poverty and racism by turning to gangs, drug dealing, and in Shakur’s case rapping. Rather than being celebrated for finding some means of surviving under these harsh economic and social conditions, these young men are instead labeled as thugs. Shakur famously had the words Thug Life tattooed on his abdomen. The “concrete” can be interpreted as a metaphor for crime-ridden, poor, urban communities like Englewood, Chicago. The “roses” can be interpreted as a symbol of  the youth who inhabit these neighborhoods. The “damaged petals” could be perceived as the likely psychological scars that the youth of these neighborhoods have obtained from suffering from years of economic and violent trauma, and generational poverty.

The Rose Powerade commercial offers a corporate fairy tale, in which, athletes at least, can escape places like Englewood, Chicago and their blight, through personal effort alone. As the advertising agency states “[n]o matter where athletes get their start, or what obstacles they face in life, through hard work and determination, they can advance from the very bottom to the very top.” It is very telling that in the commercial, Rose rides out of the neighborhood alone. While he may have escaped the violence and poverty of Englewood, Chicago, thousands of other black youth remain in that neighborhood, without extraordinary athletic ability to serve as their ticket out.

Lury, Celia. Brands: The logos of the global economy. London: Routledge, 2004. Kindle

Maharaj, Gitanjali. “Talking Trash: Late Capitalism, Black (Re) Productivity, and Professional Basketball.” Social Text No. 50 (Spring 1997): 97-110. Accessed January 4, 2015.

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