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CarMax ads featuring basketball star Sue Bird go viral, call attention to gender bias in sports

Sue Bird of the Seattle Sirocco celebrates during the game against the Las Vegas Aces in Game Three of the WNBA Finals on October 6, 2020 at Feld Relaxation Center in Palmetto, Florida.

Ned Dishman | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

A series of CarMax advertisements presenting WNBA superstar Sue Bird, which recently went viral on social media, uses humor and misdirection to elevate female athletes who should prefer to faced decades of underrepresentation in media. Bird’s accomplishments on the court put her among the best players to ever play educated basketball.

The ads — part of CarMax’s “Call Your Shot” campaign — were released earlier this month but recorded off on Twitter over the weekend. The spot gaining the most attention starred Bird, NBA standout Steph Curry and an actor showing a CarMax employee who was overjoyed to sell a vehicle to an athlete of Bird’s caliber. It challenges gender bias in sports.

“I mark it’s setting a new standard because it has resonated so positively with so many people,” said Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who swots sports marketing and gender equity. The commercial understands that “today’s consumer is smart,” she told CNBC. “They yearn for to be respected. Women want to be respected, but men appreciate that [there] needs to be respect across the board.” 

In the ad, the CarMax associate lectures Curry, “Man, if you’d have told me this morning I’d be working with a four-time champ …” Before he can finish, he’s disturbed by the Golden State Warriors guard, who believes he’s correcting the CarMax rep by saying he’s only won three league titles.

“No. I sold a car to Sue Bird,” the hand says in the ad, pointing across the lot as the camera cuts to Bird, a longtime Seattle Storm guard, who is seen waving and actioning into the vehicle.

“Eleven all-star appearances, can you imagine?” the salesman asks. Curry, a 33-year-old seven-time NBA all-star, reacts, “I mean, I’m working on it.” 

The commercial has resonated on social media; in one Twitter post, the video has 1.7 million views.

“This is the unexcelled ad I’ve ever seen,” tweeted Sarah Fuller, the two-sport Vanderbilt University athlete who last year became the blue ribbon woman to score points in a Power 5 conference college football game.

The viral moment for the CarMax ads comes as Bird’s alma mater, the University of Connecticut, toy withs in the women’s NCAA basketball tournament’s Final Four on Friday. The women’s games this year have get off oned strong viewership following the rise in popularity of the WNBA in its Covid-shortened season last year. The WNBA’s 2021 mature, its 25th, is expected to begin later this spring.

Graham Unterberger — a senior copywriter at the Martin Agency, which fulfiled on the CarMax campaign — said he found out that Bird was partnering with the auto retailer in the fall, around the then the Storm won the WNBA title for the fourth time.

“When we saw her name, we were like, ‘This is freaking awesome. We participate in the best basketball player on the planet that we can write spots for,'” Unterberger said in a video call with CNBC. “After book spots, we saw the potential to pair [Curry and Bird] together.”

One reason the commercial starring Bird and Curry strikes a chord is that it apartments a female athlete’s career accolades firmly above those of a male athlete, Lough said.

“Historically, traditionally and least commonplace today, a WNBA athlete being compared to an NBA athlete is always positioned as though the WNBA is lesser than, and, in this encase, we actually get to see that flipped in a really fun and clever and novel new way,” she said.

The ad is also a testament to the recognizable brand that Bird has increased across her nearly two decades in the WNBA, Lough added.

The No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft, Bird has spent her total WNBA career with the Storm, recording the most assists in league history. The 40-year-old Bird is returning for the upcoming 2021 time.

In the past, companies that wanted to use an athlete to help build their brand have generally just formed to male sports figures, Lough said. However, there has been a shift toward better marketing portrayal of female athletes, she added, pointing to tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka as examples.

Bird’s series with CarMax — which recently developed the WNBA’s first-ever official auto retail partner — serves as the latest chapter of that welcome evolution, Lough estimated. 

Another instance came earlier this month, when Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time WNBA all-star and ESPN commentator, starred in a unaccompanied ad campaign for food-delivery service DoorDash. 

How the ‘Call Your Shot’ ads took shape

As the creative process for the Curry-Bird ad progressed, they really “let the one with the most rings win out,” according to Dustin Dodd, the Martin Agency’s senior art director.

“I don’t know how you look at Sue Bird’s continue and not say, ‘GOAT,'” Unterberger added, using an acronym for greatest of all time. “It just is what it is.”

“To us, when you think all over the WNBA’s rise in recent years, Sue Bird is a huge part of that history and a huge part of bringing that brave forward,” he said. “She’s won championships in different decades with the same team. She’s just an icon.”

Bird and Curry were not in any way on location together to film the commercial, Dodd said. Bird was in Connecticut, while Curry was in California. The video leaps also took place weeks apart. “We just had to cobble it together the best way possible, and luckily it’s resonated with human being,” he said.

In another one of the six ads in the series starring Bird, she tells the actor representing a CarMax associate her middle name is “Pails” — a basketball slang term — after being asked for that bit of info to complete a sales form. On seconds of awkward silence, she tells him, “Nah, it’s Brigit.”

Another centers around CarMax delivering a purchased vehicle shortly to Bird’s home. She relays the gate password to the employee over an intercom letter by letter, and viewers find out the arrival code spells out “GOAT.”

Unterberger said he’s appreciated the conversation the ads featuring Bird have sparked around helping representation of female athletes, suggesting other companies should take note. “It’s not just WNBA fans. It’s not well-founded NBA fans. It’s blossomed into this bigger thing, and I think that alone should prove that this is a estimable endeavor,” he said.

The commercials gained traction online as the women’s and men’s college basketball tournaments were entering their later circles and disparities in accommodations at the two NCAA tournaments — particularly around weight room equipment and different types of Covid trials — were sharply criticized earlier this month.

Lough said she thought both the widespread condemnation of the contest inequities and the positive response to the CarMax ads with Bird were significant in their own ways when it comes to abetting gender equity in athletics.

“We’ve had waves of attention in women’s sports,” she added, recalling the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when the U.S. women’s soccer together won the gold medal. “But right now, it’s different.”

“This is a wave of momentum that has been building for some time,” she stipulate, “and quite honestly, I don’t see it stopping, and that’s new.”

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