Bugs Bunny had never been caught in a situation quite like this before. Disrupted by a group of troublemaking basketball players at a local gym, the iconic cartoon rabbit laced up his “Hare” Air Jordan VIIs to take on the group with his teammate, Michael Jordan. The rest of the minute-long Super Bowl XXVI spot saw MJ dunking all over the bullies and Bugs pulling off some signature tricks of his own like dropping anvils and smashing pies in faces. It was legendary ad agency Wieden+Kennedy’s latest work with Nike. And it would prove to be one of its most memorable.
MJ and Bugs’ “Hare Jordan” ad was a success. Not only did it spark follow-up commercials, it would go on to inspire the cult-classic film Space Jam, which debuted on the silver screen four years later in 1996. Needless to say, that Super Bowl ad was very popular and the series of commercials that paired the dynamic duo together are still being referenced to this day. The latest example of Jordan Brand using the "Hare" theme is today's Air Jordan VI colorway that finally hit select retailers this morning after a handful of delays and release date changes. While the color scheme is recognizable—it's the same one that outfitted the Air Jordan VII being advertised in the 1992 campaign—this is the first time the red and grey combination has been applied to MJ's sixth signature.
And to think, the idea was borne simply from Wieden+Kennedy creative director Jim Riswold's love for Looney Tunes and personal desire to meet Bugs Bunny. While he even admits being a tough guy to work with back then, his legendary resume includes some of Nike's most iconic campaigns—the "It's Gotta Be the Shoes" spots with Mars Blackmon in the early '90s, "Bo Knows," and Tiger Woods commercials to name a few. In 2000, Riswold would be diagnosed with leukemia before ultimately retiring from the ad agency in 2006 after nearly two decades. His tough battle would lead him to pursue a career as a contemporary artist known for works like dressing figurines of Adolf Hitler in a dirndl, a traditional German dress, or turning Kim Jong-Un into colorful lollipops. His 2017 memoir is even titled Hitler Saved My Life. In recent years, he had returned to Wieden+Kennedy as a chief creative officer of W+K 12, an advertising school housed in the agency's Portland HQ, but many are still most fond of his the work he did for Nike throughout the '90s. His close relationship with Jordan even landed his nickname, Rizzy, a spot among the collage of images and words that were lasers on the strap of the Air Jordan XX celebrating MJ's legacy.
To mark the release of the "Hare" Air Jordan IV, we talked with Riswold, the mind behind the original "Hare Jordan" campaign and countless other memorable Nike ads, to discuss the legacy of his work, thoughts on Space Jam, Jordan Brand continuing to reference the 28-year old ad, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Working at Wieden+Kennedy, what were you doing before the Nike and Jordan stuff really started up? What was your role there?
I worked primarily on [Nike] for most of my career. I'd done some other things. I tended to get in trouble a lot with my big mouth, so I'd get taken off the Nike account and have to go stand in the corner and work on less interesting things. And then I'd get called back, repeat myself with my big mouth, and go stand in the corner [again]. I was, like, the eighth employee. That was one of the first things I started working on because I came from a background working in basketball. I was an intern for the Sonics, the glorified errand boy at one time. And so I always had an affinity for basketball and then landed that dream job.
I worked on Nike almost exclusively up until then. I basically had been working on all of Michael's stuff, all the stuff with Spike Lee, I created all the stuff with Bo [Jackson]. We weren't ready for Tiger [Woods] yet, but I did most of the Tiger stuff, Charles [Barkley]. So I called myself a kid in a candy store that got paid to be in a candy store.
Nike is this giant global company now, but back then they weren't necessarily at that level yet. Was it still exciting for you to get that account at the time?
Oh, it was very exciting. I mean they weren't number one, the irreverence that that company had. And still for a large company, I think it's, alas, a great degree of irreverence. It was fun to work on Nike because you got to punch up a lot basically at Reebok or Adidas.
Were there ever specific requests from the Nike team to take those subtle little jabs in the ads and stuff like that?
Well, they didn't really want to acknowledge the competition, but if you could sneak something in there witty, you might get away with it.
You did the stuff with Mars Blackmon before, but do you remember how you settled on featuring Michael Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny to advertise the Air Jordan VII back then?
Well, they were going to put Michael on the Super Bowl and they wanted to take a break from the Mars Blackmon stuff and make a big giant Jordan spot. I couldn't think of a bigger star to team him up with than Bugs Bunny. I grew up a Bugs Bunny nut and I like to say I just did the spot because I wanted to be talking to Bugs Bunny.
One of my favorite things about the Hare Jordan thing was—well, two things. Chuck Jones (the cartoonist who created Bugs Bunny) said it was nice to see the real Bugs Bunny again and two, I got to write an op-ed piece about meeting Bugs Bunny for the New York Times and they bumped an op-ed piece by some commie named Mikhail Gorbachev to run mine. But in context now, the truth comes out, it ran on a Saturday, which is the lowest readership of the New York Times, and they moved Gorbachev's thing til Monday where people would actually read it. But I like to say that's what they told me. "Yeah, we moved the Gorbachev piece for this one."
So to you, Bugs Bunny is the bigger draw in that ad than Michael almost, right?
Oh I can't say that. I've got to meet Michael, become friends, play golf with him and all that kind of stuff. I didn't get to do any of that stuff with Bugs Bunny until I fucking met Bugs Bunny.
How hands-on were you with the actual product when it came to putting these ads together? Were you getting this product in hand? Was there any back and forth with Nike on that level?
Yeah, I was friends with—still am I hope—with Tinker Hatfield. I'd go out and just hang out with him for a couple of days and watch him put together, draw ideas for a particular shoe and all that stuff. I found that fascinating. I mean, if you're going to be a copywriter or any creative person, you better know your subject. Any good creative person needs to be wildly interested in things.
From a legal standpoint, with Warner Bros., were there challenges that you were met with back then?
Oh yeah, there were. Yeah. How can I put this? Well I don't need to say anything politely anymore. They had all, "Bugs can't be violent, Bugs can't be this, Porky can't stutter," all this. What the fuck are you talking about? Bugs is violent and there was some early arguing back and forth. We played chicken with them and said, "Well fine, we'll go do it with Roger Rabbit," and that kind of changed things. Yeah. It's like [Bugs] is an outlaw and [Warner Bros.] sanitized him, and I think one of the things we wanted to do, or at least me as a fan to my fellow fans, was to un-sanitize Bugs Bunny and put some of that irreverence and stuff that made him Bugs Bunny in the ad.
Yeah, because even in the spot you have the anvil being dropped on the one guy's head, you have them all in the pile all woozy at the end.
Yeah, it's all classic stuff. I mean, for the two, three weeks after the concept was approved, fine tuning it, I got to sit and watch cartoons all day long for about a month. You look at some of those cartoons and you go, "Oh, they got away with that?" There's a cartoon where I think Bugs takes over for the Easter Bunny, and he delivers an Easter egg to the dead end kid's house. And there's a little baby in a crib and instead of a pacifier, he's got a revolver in his mouth. It's just like, that stuff's awesome. And you know the censor never saw that, and we wanted to bring that Bugs back. I'm not sure they used that Bugs properly in Space Jam.
Do you remember kind of what MJ's reaction was to the whole campaign idea? Was he on board from the jump? Did he think it was weird?
Oh, if he would have had a problem he would have told me. But no, it was just everybody had fun. I think one of the nicest compliments I ever got from an athlete on a project was from Michael, that when he told me that the Air Jordan spot after it ran was a big success, well before the movie, but it was his kid's favorite commercial that his dad did. And I said, "Wow, that's something since you do about 5,000 commercials a fucking year." So that's good for something.
Did Spike Lee ever speak to you about being replaced by a cartoon rabbit?
That's funny, not to my recollection. But the beauty of Mars is we went back to him time and time again after that. I mean when Michael went off to baseball, we did a baseball spot with him. When he came to his senses and went back and basketball, we did "It Was All a Dream" with Mars. And then finally when Michael retired the last time, for the final time, we brought Mars back. So I think there's a far greater connection between Mars Blackmon and Michael Jordan than Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan, at least in my mind.
Speaking to the Hare Jordan campaign, did you expect that to become as monumental as it did? In the campaign, it ends with Bugs saying, "This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," but was that the internal feeling as far as those ads went as well?
Well, obviously we did another one the following year. I could never ever gauge if something was going to be successful. I mean, you get lucky. Yeah, you think you did something good, but how it goes over is anybody's guess, let alone him wanting to make a movie out of it.
So it becomes Space Jam. Do you remember when you first heard that your Hare Jordan campaigns were so popular that they were going to turn it into a movie?
Of course. And I was hired for a bit, I worked on a couple of scenes. I think I tried to make a whole completely different movie, and then like it usually does, my big mouth ran afoul of the Hollywood powers that be and I was no longer involved with the project. I think I have, like, the fifth-to-last credit on the movie or something. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out why that movie was successful.
What do you mean by that?
I don't think it's funny. As a movie toon purist—which sounds goofy as fucking hell—Tweety Bird and Sylvester, they're not friends, they don't team up and they looked silly playing basketball.
I've heard you refer to it as the longest commercial ever made. Do you still feel that way?
Yes, although it seems like a lot of movies are commercials. Every Marvel movie is a commercial.
The sneakers that he wore have become iconic parts of the movie, but Nike didn't participate in the rollout originally. You worked on the movie, but you're saying you didn't really find it funny and they kind of watered down Bugs Bunny's character. Did you share that feeling that Nike had that you didn't really see the vision of it back then?
Yeah, that's why I got kicked off the movie. Plain and simple.
What are your thoughts on them revisiting the concept with LeBron James?
Good luck. I guess LeBron wants to be the next Michael Jordan, so he's got to do a Bugs Bunny movie.
And Nike's on board this time, they're promoting it.
Yeah, regardless of the quality of the movie, I think they missed out by not being involved because it was a cultural success, certainly more than it was an artistic success, but so.
Do you keep up with how Jordan Brand continues to use the Hare Jordan relationship over the years?
They can use it any way they want. I'd like to be involved with it sometimes, and then sometimes I go, "Oh, it's probably the best that I'm not." For both parties. I had a reputation to be quite difficult to work with.
Would you call yourself a fan of the Air Jordan sneakers?
Well, I'm a fan of Tinker and his process, the creative process that led to the various designs of those shoes. I asked myself, "How can you come up with 20 different ones?" Well, I did at least 20 different Michael Jordan, Spike Lee commercials. So I guess it becomes ingrained. You know the foundation and what's this house going to look like that's different than the last house that you built from essentially the same foundation, the athlete.
The original "Hare" is the white and grey with the red accents that everyone knows and is so famous, but this year, for instance, they did an Air Jordan VII that literally is supposed to look like Bugs Bunny, covered in grey faux fur. Have you seen these? Have you kept up with stuff like that?
I have not. They sound like bedroom slippers.
They're definitely interesting.
That sounds like a polite way of saying, "What the fuck was somebody thinking here?" That's the worst word you can always hear when you present advertising, the first comment from a client, “interesting.”
In hindsight, seeing how big Nike and just the sneaker world in general has gotten, does that aspect of it amaze you at all?
Yes. Who wouldn't it amaze? I was always bemused by an advertisement's success. Why were all these fucking people listening to something a moron like myself would have to say?
What was your relationship with Jordan like?
I think we were friends. The funniest story about playing golf with him, we had a meeting out at Nike on a Saturday in the early '90s and the ad manager said, "Jordan wants to play golf, bring your clubs, you guys can play golf after." So we had our meeting, at the time I was driving a '66 baby blue Volkswagen, so Jordan's clubs are at the golf course and he goes, "where's your car?" And I point at the Volkswagen and he says, "Cool." And then the Nike people are like, "You can't drive him in that car!"
He goes, "My college roommate had one of these, there's plenty of head room in those cars." They said, fine. We're driving on Highway 26, which is a freeway that leads you from where Nike is back into town, and it's a beautiful Saturday morning. We're driving, he's got the window down and people are pointing, "That's Michael Jordan!" And then they'd be like, nah, and he'd wave and go, "Yeah, it's me." It was hysterical. After we played, I dropped him off at his hotel and back in those days, people knew when Jordan was in town, where he stayed. So there's a big crowd at the entrance to the elevator and he'd always go through a side door, not the elevator, of the hotel and a fancy car like a Porsche or something pulls up and all the fans go that way. And my little car comes up behind it, he gets out, of course nobody sees him.
Throughout the '90s, Michael Jordan was the biggest person on earth essentially. Did you ever, because you were working so closely with him, get wrapped up in the mystique of Michael Jordan at all?
Nope. I think he would enjoy that, too. I mean, we just really had a normal relationship. My job wasn't to fawn over him, my job was to make him look good. He had enough handlers who fawned well.
Your work was instrumental in helping transform him into this larger than life figure throughout his career. What do you kind of think about that mythological quality that so many people have for MJ?
You could turn on TV, Sportscenter, and you can watch Michael, the assassin, every night. And I tried to show the playful side of him or even make fun of him. I teased him pretty good with Mars Blackmon baseball spot and I teased him pretty good on his comeback spot. I remember where he said it was all a dream, and one line was, "I dreamt I was a weak-hitting AA outfielder with a below average arm." And I remember, this is when it was announced that he was going back and we had a week to come up with an idea and sell him an idea. We did one of those spots, but with Spike and then another where he was just in the foul line and he was wondering that he had this dream. I had to present the idea over the phone and I came to that line "a weak-hitting AA outfielder with a below average arm." People said, "Well, you're going to have trouble with that line." I read the line and there's silence, he goes, "Why do you want to call me a weak-hitting AA outfielder?" I said, "What else would you call somebody batting a .201?" And everybody just looks like, "Oh fuck here it comes." He goes, "Fuck you, Riswold, I'll do it."
So I treated him like a human being, and I think he kind of probably—I would imagine if I was in his shoes that somebody that treats you normally would be welcomed.
Was that ever something he personally acknowledged or was it those one-off quips in meetings like you just pointed towards?
He'd say in some interviews talking about Nike, "I got a guy that knows me pretty good." My kids liked it, too. If he didn't like something, he'd call me at home and my kids would be like, "Dad, Michael Jordan's on the phone." If he didn't like something, he trusted me, and I wasn't doing anything to make him look stupid.