Bo's Promos

Bo Jackson is one of the most transcendent athletes of his or any era. Maybe that's why his promos for 5-hour Energy are so depressing.
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For all that we know about what Bo Jackson knows—football, baseball, lucrative shoe contracts, a mystique that towers over the abbreviated length of his athletic career—MLB.TV viewers in 2013 now know, thanks to a ubiquitous series of ads, that Bo Jackson knows two 5-Hour Energy promos. To be clear, Bo knows the product as “5-hour ENERGY,” the stylized version of the name Living Essentials prefers, since the company wants to make sure consumers are buying their pint-sized bottle of fun for the all-caps vim/vigor it promises to impart—healthily! with no crash! for up to 5 hours!—to your dragging ass. You do not need to know much about Bo Jackson to know that this is all sort of a bummer, or at least something very like catching Hercules in an underlit advertisement for discount furniture. Bo’s promos realize those bummers in all their fetid glory.

The more professional-looking promo—that is, the one that seems the product of folks sitting down for a good handful of minutes and thinking about what should be put on screen before turning on the cameras—plays off of the indelible image hewn from Jackson’s singular athletic accomplishments. Granted, viewers will have to be of a certain age to associate the black-and-white photography of this ad with that iconic Nike poster showing an in-his-prime Bo relaxing with a baseball bat behind his neck while wearing football pads, or to think of the “Bo Knows” campaign (by way of Corinthians) when Jackson briefly summarizes his life’s accomplishments. Bo is a business owner and a spokesperson. Bo is a husband and a father. Bo does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Bo never fails. All of which, sure, if you think it’ll move some taurine-juice.

For what it’s worth, Bo is making this pitch as interstitial music from a film based on a Nicholas Sparks book warbles dramatically in the background. This lends the ad an oddly expectant air that, unsurprisingly, is never fully realized. Jackson is also shown reciting most of this dialogue in an outfit that suggests he was dragged into the studio not so much after as during a golf outing and then given a few minutes to prepare for the shoot. Again, this is the more professional-looking of the two commercials.

Then there is the other 5-hour Energy promo, which is the one I had the pleasure of frantically muting over and over again during the first week of the 2013 baseball season. “Why Does Bo Jackson Use 5-hour Energy?” it begins. After the first dozen or so times I was quick enough with the mute button not to hear the answer, but Bo Jackson does indeed go on to answer that question, in mundane detail, while behind-the-scenes footage from the first commercial plays. As Bo explains that he’s not as young as he used to be—this still-jarringly-fit man turned 50 last November—and that the aforementioned elixir gave him the boost needed to get through an arduous round of golf, viewers get to watch as a man who once casually ran up an outfield wall and over Brian Bosworth (not in the same game) goes through the motions of swinging a bat and a driver while in his finest business casual duds. This, as you might expect, is somewhat anticlimactic.

Then we cut to Jackson, now wearing a suit, in an office at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports complex. He explains in voiceover, and exemplifies in images, the drudgery of the workday grind. Bo looks out the window of his office as it rains. Bo slouches in a chair while checking his smart phone. Bo sits at his desk to answer a landline phone. (I assume there’s a director’s cut wherein Bo has multiple assistant managers stop by to explain the importance of the new TPS Report cover sheet in copious detail.) Finally, Bo concludes some kind of meeting and shakes some hands. But as Bo stands from his chair to shake those hands, I can’t help but notice, at least after the sixth or seventh time I saw the ad, that he braces himself on the meeting table with his left hand while getting up.

***

If a professional athlete grows old gracefully, it’s most likely by accident. The rigors of making a body move and act in ways that aren’t natural, and then repeating those actions at alarming speeds and with alarming frequency, is bound to exact its toll, even for an athlete lucky enough not to experience the kind of debilitating injury Bo Jackson suffered. That Jackson was able to play professional baseball after undergoing hip replacement surgery and not embarrass himself is a testament to his unparalleled physical gifts, as well as the sort of resolute consequence-damning stubbornness that sports fans want their favorite athletes to exhibit.

It’s that very same quality that makes former athletes—even those whose accomplishments dwarf their stage presence—perfect spokespeople for lifestyle products like these. There is no amount of taurine and caffeine that will make an ordinary human anything like Bo Jackson, but: well, there he is. Granted, the sort of physical therapy athletes undergo to return to even a shadow of their former selves isn’t quite the same as making it through another eight-hour day at a job you can’t stand so you can send out another mortgage payment, but even at the height of one’s profession, the shit is still the shit.

However, the ex-athlete is usually presented as an ideal—either a wise and unassailable authority figure basking in the glow of his on-field accomplishments, or the perfect next door neighbor with the perfect lawn and the perfect house and the perfect family enjoying the fruits of the aforementioned athlete’s spectacular labor. Whether it’s a result of Living Essentials not caring much about these ads beyond securing Jackson as a spokesperson or just the slipshod nature of the production, what these ads do to the idea of Bo Jackson—at least, the idea of Bo Jackson, Benevolent Athletic Demi-Deity that the target audience presumably has in mind—is the sort of ruthless demystification that bloodthirsty columnists couldn’t accomplish with a year’s worth of slanderous text.

Not that there’s anything wrong with giving athletic idol worship a little necessary perspective shift, of course; there isn’t, at all. And as great as it is that some folks can throw or run better than almost anyone else in the world, there’s something to be said about what one accomplishes outside of the throwing and running.

The thing is, Bo Jackson is an exemplar of exactly that kind of accomplishment, too. He not only went back and finished his collegiate studies, but parlayed his brief pro athletic career(s) into a series of (presumably) successful business endeavors, including the aforementioned Elite Sports Complex. The Bo Jackson in these commercials—weary, sullen, burdened by the khaki, quotidian day-to-day—isn’t basking in any glories, athletic or otherwise. There’s no juxtaposition between young Bo dodging tacklers or hitting mammoth home runs and elder Bo getting paid for his business acumen, physical ailments be damned. Sure, there’s Bo Jackson’s face and voice and pantomimed golf swing, but nothing of what actually makes Bo Jackson great, never mind someone worth listening to even during a 30-second MLB.TV interstitial.

Instead, there’s just a 50-year-old ex-athlete awkwardly shilling for a small-format energy drink, uncomfortably carrying the weight of every one of those years, made to look small and insignificant by a bottle the size of his palm. Those shots of him going through the motions of swinging a baseball bat or holding a football make him look like a struggling actor wearily working the genre-convention circuit to press flesh with folks that just want to hear him or see him do that thing he did some decades ago for the umpteenth time. And the sight of Jackson looking through an office window as it rains is so wistfully morose, the drink pitch could be replaced with a narrator speculating on what could have been accomplished by an injury-free Bo, and it’d be just as appropriate.

Time comes for everyone, eventually, but usually advertisers use that to their advantage, instead of also succumbing to that inexorable pull. Seeing Bo Jackson look and act more like Willy Loman than Willie Mays is the sort of existential sucker punch that no combination of caffeine and vitamins could ever erase. It’s hard to imagine how an ad for an energy drink could be more enervating, or heavier, or less energizing. It’s all bad for you, every sour ounce. You sense Bo knows it, too.


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