A series of CarMax ads featuring WNBA superstar Sue Vogel, which recently went viral on social media, uses humor and deception to elevate female athletes who have faced decades of under-representation in the media. Bird’s performance on the court places her among the best players to ever play professional basketball.
The ads — part of CarMax’s “Call Your Shot” campaign – were released earlier this month but kicked off on Twitter over the weekend. The most attention-grabbing spot with Bird, NBA Remarkable Steph Curry and an actor portraying a CarMax employee who was overjoyed to sell a vehicle to an athlete of Bird’s caliber. It challenges gender bias in sports.
“I think it sets a new standard because it resonates so positively with so many people,” said Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which studies sports marketing and gender equality. The commercial understands that “today’s consumer is smart,” she told CNBC. “They want to be respected. Women want to be respected, but men appreciate that [there] should be respected across the board.”
In the ad, the CarMax employee tells Curry, “Man, if you’d told me this morning I’d be working with a four-time champion…” Before he can finish, he’s interrupted by the Golden State Warriors security guard, who thinks that he corrects the CarMax representative by saying that he has only won three league titles.
“No. I sold a car to Sue Bird,” the employee says in the ad, pointing across the property as the camera cuts to Bird, an old Seattle Storm security guard, who waves and gets into the vehicle.
“Eleven all-star appearances, can you imagine?” asks the seller. Curry, a 33-year-old seven-time NBA all-star, responds: “I mean, I’m working on it.”
The commercial has resonated on social media; in one Twitter post, the video 1.7 million views.
“This is the best ad I’ve ever seen,” tweeted Sarah Fuller, the two-sport Vanderbilt University athlete who became last year the first woman to score points in a Power 5 conference college football game.
The viral moment for the CarMax ads comes when Bird’s alma mater, the University of Connecticut, plays in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament on Friday. Enjoyed this year’s women’s games strong viewers according to the rising popularity of the WNBA in his Covid-shortened season last year. The 2021 WNBA season, its 25th, is expected to begin later this spring.
Graham Unterberger — a senior copywriter at the agency Martin, who worked on the CarMax campaign — said he found out Bird was working with the car dealer in the fall, around the time the Storm won the WNBA title for the fourth time.
“When we saw her name, we were like, ‘This is great. We have the best basketball player in the world to write spots for,'” Unterberger said in a video call to CNBC. “After writing spots, we saw the potential to link [Curry and Bird] together.”
One of the reasons the commercial starring Bird and Curry strikes a chord is that it clearly puts a female athlete’s career ahead of a male athlete’s, Lough said.
“Historically, traditionally and very common today, a WNBA athlete who is compared to an NBA athlete is always positioned as if the WNBA is less than, and in this case we get to see that in a really fun and smart and new story. new way,” she said.
The ad is also a testament to the recognizable brand Bird has built for nearly two decades in the WNBA, Lough added.
In the past, companies looking to use an athlete to build their brand have generally just turned to male sports figures, Lough said. However, there has been a shift towards better marketing representation of female athletes, she added, pointing to tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka as examples.
Bird’s Series with CarMax – who recently became the WNBA’s first ever official auto retail partner — serves as the final chapter of that welcome evolution, Lough said.
Another example came earlier this month when Los Angeles Sparks came forward Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time WNBA all-star and ESPN Commentator, starred in a solo ad campaign for food delivery service DoorDash.
As the creative process for the Curry-Bird ad progressed, they simply let “the one with the most rings win,” according to Dustin Dodd, senior art director at the Martin Agency.
“I don’t know how you look at Sue Bird’s resume and not say, ‘GOAT,'” Unterberger added, using an acronym for the greatest of all time. “It just is what it is.”
“To us, when you think about the rise of the WNBA in recent years, Sue Bird is a big part of that history and a big part of bringing that game forward,” he said. “She has won championships with the same team in several decades. She is just an icon.”
Bird and Curry were never on location together to film the commercial, Dodd said. Bird was in Connecticut while Curry was in California. The video recordings also took place weeks apart. “We just had to put it together in the best possible way, and luckily it resonated with people,” he said.
In another of the six ads in the series Starring Bird, she tells the actor representing a CarMax employee that her middle name is “Buckets” — a basketball slang term — after being asked for that bit of information to fill out a sales form. After seconds of awkward silence, she says to him, “No, it’s Brigit.”
Another revolves around CarMax delivering a purchased vehicle directly to Bird’s home. She relays the gate password letter by letter to the employee through an intercom, and viewers discover that the access code is “GOAT.”
Unterberger said he appreciated the conversation the ads sparked with Bird about boosting female athlete representation, and suggests other companies should take note. “It’s not just WNBA fans. It’s not just NBA fans. It’s grown into this bigger thing, and I think that alone should prove that this is a worthy undertaking,” he said.
The commercials gained traction online as the women’s and men’s basketball tournaments entered their later rounds and disparities in accommodations at the two NCAA tournaments — especially around weight room equipment and different types of Covid tests — were sharply criticized earlier this month.
Lough said she found both the widespread condemnation of inequality in the tournament and the positive response to the CarMax ads featuring Bird significant in their own way when it comes to promoting gender equality in athletics.
“We’ve had a lot of attention in women’s sports,” she added, recalling the… 1996 Atlanta Olympics when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the gold medal. “But right now it’s different.”
“This is a wave of momentum that’s been building for a while,” she said, “and honestly I don’t see it stopping, and that’s new.”