Space Jam turns 20 this year, but few fans remember that facing off against the Monstars was not Michael Jordan’s first time playing with Bugs and Daffy. In 1992, Jordan joined a pickup game with the Looney Tunes in a Super Bowl commercial. The ad didn’t just serve as the core inspiration for Space Jam: it resurrected the Looney Tunes out of cultural irrelevancy and used nostalgia as a marketing hook. That’s a move most millennials are now very familiar with, but in 1996, it was a stroke of unique marketing genius.
The Ivan Reitman-produced Space Jam explores Michael Jordan’s departure from the NBA. After deciding to play professional baseball, Jordan is kidnapped by the Looney Tunes and eventually agrees to coach them in a basketball game. Their opponents, led by the cigar-chewing Mr. Swackhammer (Danny DeVito) seek to enslave the toons as attractions in a theme park.
Produced by Jim Riswold of Wieden + Kennedy, the Portland-based agency that has worked with Nike for decades, “Hare Jordan” was one of the first major examples of market-tested nostalgia, a precursor to today’s commodification of childhoods to energize brand synergy. (A second commercial in 1993 was designed specifically to sell the Air Jordan VII.)
After “Hare Jordan,” Sega, Hertz, McDonald’s, and a slew of other corporations began mixing live-action with animation in advertising, because people “warm to cartoon characters in ways they don’t warm to human beings,” explained Renee Fraser, another psychologist from Los Angeles. But in 1992, Bugs Bunny had two things over Sonic the Hedgehog: Legacy, and Michael Jordan, the most transcendent athlete in the world.
Although 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — which also featured Bugs Bunny with other cartoon icons like Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop — was innovative in its use of animation and live actors, it skewed exclusively to an older audience by using its most familiar characters, Mickey and Bugs, as extras, not stars. David Falk, Jordan’s agent, who steered Jordan into Hollywood, knew how to capitalize on that missed opportunity. Falk pushed for a Jordan/Bugs Bunny movie based wholly on “its merchandising potential as for its box-office appeal.” At the same time, Warner Bros. hoped to revive its Looney Tunes franchise during a time when Batman was the box office force to reckon with; in 1992, the year “Hare Jordan” came out, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns was the number one film with the biggest opening weekend to date.
Space Jam’s worldwide gross sales when it hit theaters in 1996 amounted to $230 million. It was shy of Batman Forever’s $266 million, but the experiment still worked beyond what Warner could fathom. The Chicago-Tribune reported that all tie-in Space Jam merchandise raked in $1.2 billion, with an impact of $4 to $6 billion over time due to the resurged marketability of Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Tweety, Marvin the Martian, and the rest. (And yeah, Air Jordans with Bugs on them, those sold a bunch too.)
After “Hare Jordan” and Space Jam Looney cartoons sprung, like The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Duck Dodgers, the experimental Loonatics Unleashed which reimagined the characters in a post-apocalyptic setting, and The Looney Tunes Show, a sitcom starring Bugs and Daffy as roommates in L.A.
That’s not counting the subsequent video games, tie-in merch, comic books, other films like the theatrical Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and the plethora of direct-to-video features. All told, playing with Michael Jordan was a slam dunk.
But the thing 20-somethings today revert to without fail is Space Jam, where Michael Jordan played ball to save the Tunes from aliens. But the film’s origins, “Hare Jordan,” is less drastic and apocalyptic. It was just a game of basketball.