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CarMax Ads Featuring Basketball Star Sue Bird Go Viral, Call Attention to Gender Bias in Sports

Ned Dishman | National Basketball Association | Getty Images
  • WNBA superstar Sue Bird, among the best players to ever play pro basketball, is featured in a series of CarMax advertisements that recently went viral on social media.
  • Sports marketing professor Nancy Lough told CNBC the ads represent a "new standard" for elevating female athletes.
  • "She's won championships in different decades with the same team. She's just an icon," said senior copywriter Graham Unterberger, who worked on the campaign.

A series of CarMax advertisements featuring WNBA superstar Sue Bird, which recently went viral on social media, uses humor and misdirection to elevate female athletes who have faced decades of underrepresentation in media. Bird's accomplishments on the court put 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 took off on Twitter over the weekend. The spot gaining the most attention starred Bird, NBA standout 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'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 studies sports marketing and gender equity. 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] needs to be respect across the board." 

In the ad, the CarMax associate tells 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 interrupted 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 employee says in the ad, pointing across the lot as the camera cuts to Bird, a longtime Seattle Storm guard, who is seen waving and stepping into the vehicle.

"Eleven all-star appearances, can you imagine?" the salesman asks. 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 has 1.7 million views.

"This is the best ad I've ever seen," tweeted Sarah Fuller, the two-sport Vanderbilt University athlete who last year became the first 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, plays in the women's NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four on Friday. The women's games this year have enjoyed strong viewership following the rise in popularity of the WNBA in its Covid-shortened season last year. The WNBA's 2021 season, its 25th, is expected to begin later this spring.

Graham Unterberger — a senior copywriter at the Martin Agency, which worked on the CarMax campaign — said he found out that Bird was partnering with the auto retailer 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 freaking awesome. We have the best basketball player on the planet that we can write spots for,'" Unterberger said in a video call with CNBC. "After writing 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 places a female athlete's career accolades firmly above those of a male athlete, Lough said.

"Historically, traditionally and very commonplace today, a WNBA athlete being compared to an NBA athlete is always positioned as though the WNBA is lesser than, and, in this case, 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 built across her nearly two decades in the WNBA, Lough added.

The No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft, Bird 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 that wanted to use an athlete to help build their brand have generally just turned to male sports figures, Lough said. However, there has been a shift toward better marketing representation of female athletes, she added, pointing to tennis stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka as examples.

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

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 solo 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 simply "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 resume 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 about the WNBA's rise in recent years, Sue Bird is a huge part of that history and a huge part of bringing that game forward," he said. "She's won championships in different decades with the same team. She's 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 shoots also took place weeks apart. "We just had to cobble it together the best way possible, and luckily it's resonated with people," 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 "Buckets" — a basketball slang term — after being asked for that bit of info to complete a sales form. Following seconds of awkward silence, she tells him, "Nah, it's Brigit."

Another centers around CarMax delivering a purchased vehicle directly to Bird's home. She relays the gate password to the employee over an intercom letter by letter, and viewers find out the entrance code spells out "GOAT."

Unterberger said he's appreciated the conversation the ads featuring Bird have sparked around boosting representation of female athletes, suggesting other companies should take note. "It's not just WNBA fans. It's not just NBA fans. It's blossomed into this bigger thing, and I think that alone should prove that this is a worthy endeavor," he said.

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

Lough said she thought both the widespread condemnation of the tournament inequities and the positive response to the CarMax ads with Bird were significant in their own ways when it comes to advancing 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 team won the gold medal. "But right now, it's different."

"This is a wave of momentum that has been building for some time," she said, "and quite honestly, I don't see it stopping, and that's new."

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