October 2, 2022

Sue Bird of Seattle Storm celebrates during the game against the Las Vegas Aces in game three of the WNBA Finals on October 6, 2020 at Field Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

Ned Dishman | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

A series of CarMax ads starring WNBA superstar Sue Bird, who recently went viral on social media, uses humor and misdirection to promote female athletes who have been underrepresented in the media for decades. Bird’s performances on the pitch made her one of the best players to ever play professional basketball.

The ads – part of CarMax’s “Call Your Shot” campaign – were posted earlier this month but posted on Twitter over the weekend. The spot that got the most attention was Bird, standout NBA player Steph Curry, and an actor who portrayed a CarMax employee who was overjoyed to sell a vehicle to an athlete of Bird’s caliber. It challenges the gender orientation in sport.

“I think it sets a new standard because it has had such a positive response from so many people,” said Nancy Lough, a professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who 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 it [there] must be respect across the board. ”

In the ad, the CarMax agent tells Curry, “Man, if you’d told me this morning that I was working with a four-time champion …” Before he can finish, the Golden State Warriors cut him off who believes he is correcting the CarMax representative by saying he has only won three championship titles.

“No. I sold a car to Sue Bird,” says the clerk in the ad, pointing over the property while the camera points at Bird, a longtime Seattle Storm 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, replied, “I mean, I’m working on it.”

The commercial had a positive impact on social media. In a Twitter post, the video received 1.7 million views.

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

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. This year’s women’s games have had a strong crowd following the WNBA’s surge in popularity in their Covid-shortened season last year. The WNBA’s 25th season 2021 is expected to begin this spring.

Graham Unterberger – a senior copywriter at the Martin Agency who worked on the CarMax campaign – said he found out that Bird partnered with the car dealer in the fall when the Storm won the WNBA title for the fourth time.

“When we saw her name, we said, ‘This is damn great. We have the best basketball player in the world to write commercials for,'” Unterberger said on a video call with CNBC. “After we wrote commercials, we saw the potential to mate [Curry and Bird] together.”

One reason the Bird and Curry commercial strikes a chord is because it puts a female athlete’s career well above that of a male athlete, Lough said.

“Historically, traditionally, and now very commonplace, a WNBA athlete compared to an NBA athlete is always positioned as if the WNBA is smaller than, and in this case we actually see it in a really fun one Flipped, clever and novel film is new way, “she said.

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

Bird, number 1 in the 2002 draft, has spent her entire WNBA career with the Storm, recording the most assists in league history. The 40-year-old Bird is returning for the upcoming 2021 season.

In the past, companies looking to use an athlete to build their brand have generally only turned to male athletic characters, Lough said. However, there has been a shift towards better marketing representation of women athletes, she added, citing tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka as examples.

The Birds series with CarMax, which recently became the WNBA’s first official auto dealership partner, is the latest chapter in this welcome development, according to Lough.

Another example came earlier this month when Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time WNBA All-Star and ESPN commentator for Los Angeles Sparks, was part of a solo ad campaign for the food delivery service DoorDash.

How the “Call Your Shot” ads took shape

As the creative process for the Curry Bird ad progressed, they just “let the one with the most rings win,” said Dustin Dodd, senior art director, Martin Agency.

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

“When you think of the rise of the WNBA in recent years, Sue Bird is a huge part of that story for us and a huge part of the evolution of this game,” he said. “She has won championships with the same team in different decades. She is just an icon.”

Bird and Curry were never on location to shoot the commercial, Dodd said. Bird was in Connecticut while Curry was in California. The video recordings also took place at intervals of weeks. “We just had to cobble it together as best we could, and luckily it’s very popular with people,” he said.

In another of the six ads in the series starring Bird, she tells the actor, who is representing a CarMax employee, that her middle name is “Buckets” – a basketball slang term – after being asked for this information to make a Complete the sales form. After seconds of uncomfortable silence, she says to him: “No, it’s Brigit.”

Another is about CarMax, which delivers a purchased vehicle straight to Bird’s house. She forwards the gate password letter by letter to the employee via an intercom, and the spectators find out that the access code is “GOAT”.

Unterberger said he appreciated the conversation the ads sparked with Bird to promote representation for women athletes and suggested that other companies take note. “It’s not just WNBA fans. It’s not just NBA fans. It has grown into a bigger thing and I think that alone should prove that this is a worthy endeavor,” he said.

The commercials rose to prominence online as the women’s and men’s college basketball tournaments moved into their later rounds and the housing differences at the two NCAA tournaments – particularly weight room equipment and different types of Covid testing – were sharp earlier this month were criticized.

Lough said she felt that both the widespread condemnation of tournament inequality and the positive response to the CarMax ads at Bird were in their own way significant when it comes to promoting gender equality in athletics.

“We got a lot of attention in women’s sports,” she added, recalling the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when the US women’s soccer team won the gold medal. “But at the moment it’s different.”

“This is a wave of momentum that has been building for a while,” she said, “and in all honesty, I don’t see it stopping, and that’s new.”