In an in-your-face world of backboard-breakers and locker-room screamers, Fila USA thinks it's found a celebrity shoe salesman to top them all: a nice guy.
Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill, who will go into Sunday's NBA All-Star Game as the first rookie to receive the most All-Star votes, is at the center of the Hunt Valley company's $8 million campaign to bring its shoes out of the inner cities and into the suburbs.
In making the wholesome, soft-spoken Mr. Hill its representative in the multibillion-dollar U.S. athletic shoe market, Fila may be leading the way in lowering the volume in sports marketing.
"The idea is to be the antithesis of the traditional loud, rim-rattling, in-your-face NBA spot," said Howe Burch, Fila USA's vice president for advertising and communications.
"Why did Grant Hill get more votes than any other player in the All-Star Game? It's not because he's played 20 games in the NBA. It's because people like him. They're ready for that."
Forget about San Antonio Spur and self-styled rebel Dennis Rodman, lately savaged for an ad in which he hoisted Santa Claus by the coat until he gave the 6-foot-8 forward some Nikes.
Fila is betting the public is tired of the Nasty Boy images that have come to dominate sports marketing since Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan retired in 1993.
Instead, Fila is hawking its $86-a-pair shoes by selling a friendly Duke University political science major who says he hangs out in bookstores.
"That's the pendulum swinging back," said Tom George, vice president for athlete marketing at Advantage International Inc. of McLean, Va., which represents Mr. Hill. "Grant is either the vehicle or the catalyst for that."
The tone of the Hill ads that began running last week is markedly different even from Fila's own campaign last year. Those ads featured dark, outsized cartoon renderings of Dallas Mavericks forward Jamal Mashburn, a sharp contrast to the gentler images of "A Rookie's Journal" and "Grace," the two complementary campaigns supporting Mr. Hill and his shoe.
"A Rookie's Journal" is a series of behind-the-scenes looks at Mr. Hill's first year in the NBA, directed by the makers of the acclaimed 1994 basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams." Sam Gulisano, creative director of FCB/Leber Katz Inc., the New York agency that designed the spots, said the "Grace" theme came from the answer Mr. Hill's college coach gave when asked to describe Mr. Hill's game in one word.
"The neat thing about 'Rookie's Journal' is it's trying to be a real journal," Mr. Gulisano said. "He's so hot -- the publicity he's getting, the next [Michael] Jordan. We thought it would be neat to follow him around and get the feel of what the first year in the NBA is like."
The ads show Mr. Hill talking about basketball helping him overcome his high school awkwardness, giggling like a schoolboy at getting a phone call from Hall of Famer Julius Erving, and stumbling through his first photo shoot for an advertising spread. The other point implicit in the ads is that Mr. Hill is still the young man next door, someone who has not been jaded by his fame.
That image has been bolstered in recent weeks. Sports Illustrated pointed to him in a recent issue as one of the few young NBA stars with his head screwed on straight in the midst of a crop of brats.
A recent Esquire column about Mr. Hill -- the son of Calvin Hill, former NFL player and former Baltimore Orioles vice president -- carried the headline "Amazing Grace."
Fila is not the only company to build an all-American image around Mr. Hill to sell products.
Mr. Hill has six endorsement deals. He is already on the air for GMC trucks, has a campaign in the works for Sprite soda, and has deals with Wilson Sporting Goods, Skybox Trading Cards and Ohio Art Co.
"An athlete doesn't really take off until the ads start running," Mr. George said. "There's going to be $15 million spent [promoting] Grant between now and June."
Sports marketing is big business indeed. Branded athletic shoe sales in 1994 reached $6.7 billion in the U.S. wholesale market alone, according to Sporting Goods Intelligence, a trade publication.
With Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal hawking Reeboks, Pepsi and more; Grant Hill pitching for the makers of the child's game Etch-a-Sketch; and Michael Jordan selling nearly everything else, sneakers are only the beginning.
Associating Fila with the young man next door is a message the company needs to send, experts inside and outside Fila believe. The company's explosive growth in the U.S. market since 1991, after its Italian parent company bought out a U.S. licensee, has been driven overwhelmingly by sales to urban blacks.
The brand's inner-city identification is so strong that conservative columnist Mona Charen once wrote that Filas were "part of the costume of successful drug dealers."
"They have got a very street image," said Leonard Armato, a Los Angeles attorney who once represented Fila and is now Mr. O'Neal's agent.