Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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For all of Joel Embiid’s obvious likeability on and off the court, nobody’s seemed to be able to find a decent way to make money off of it yet. He’s the most personable and dynamic big man the NBA has seen since Shaq -- sorry, Dwight Howard, you tried so hard -- but capturing that larger-than-life charisma for commercial purposes has sorta been like trying to take a photo of Bigfoot: Inevitably, it comes out blurry and confusing.
First, there was the commercial for last year’s The Grinch, in which the title character called JoJo at the gym to snark about his social media habits distracting from The Process. This spot never made sense: Embiid is the troll, not the trolled, and him playing the put-upon straight man for a legitimately annoying cartoon villain felt totally off. His Mountain Dew Ice commercial only featured him in ice-breath form, blocking a shot; fine, but not a proper starring vehicle. His NBA League Pass commercial, featuring him preaching the virtues of the service while getting measured for a suit, was better, but still wasteful -- aside from getting to act aghast at his tailor’s League Pass preferences (“THE CELTICS??”) and looking damn good in a jacket and white pants, it’s mostly just Joel reading off a script in montone.
All of this makes his recent Hulu commercial -- in which he rebrands himself as Joel “Hulu Has Live Sports” Embiid, much to the consternation of his fans -- a breath of fresh, non-icy air. It’s the first ad he’s done that seems to generally understand both what he’s good at and what he’s believable doing.
It’s pretty clear at this point that Embiid, for all his charm and flair for WWE-style soap operatics, is not a particularly good dramatic actor -- his readings are flat, his movements are exaggerated, you can clearly see him thinking “ACTING” while acting. Reasonable, considering at least 95% of athletes suck at all other fields of entertainment and English isn’t even Joel’s first language. But for all the (mostly fair) Shaq comparisons, Embiid isn’t gonna be convincingly palling around with The General anytime soon, essentially acting for two: If he’s starring in your commercial, you’re better off keeping his performance clipped, limited in its emotional demands, and largely physical.
That’s why the Hulu spot is such a brilliant role for JoJo. He only has seven words of dialogue across the entire commercial -- at least in the 15-second version that most frequently airs on TV -- delivered in quick bursts where the abruptness and flatness are the entire point. There’s also a 30-second, full-length version that features an extra fan interaction and some longer reaction shots, but even that basically feels like Stadium Arcadium next to the tight 15 of the edited version, which doesn’t out-stay its welcome by a millisecond.
And turns out the remorseless, robotic sellout is a pretty good look for Embiid. He’s always been better cast as a heel than a face -- evident from every team photo he’s ever taken, where he’s consistently glowering in the background as everyone else pretends to look excited -- and there’s an inherent glee and novelty to his villainy that tends to make him more compelling the more he embraces dickishness. Playing the anti-Mean Joe Greene with his one-word, impressively sincere answer to the young boy desperate to know why he’s changed his nickname (“Money”) should only make him even more of an idol to Philly’s pre-pubescent.
The best part of the commercial is the ending, in which Embiid repeats the “Hulu Has Live Sports” catchphrase at a press-conference -- fully clad in Hulu gear against a Hulu background -- and instantly turns to the side, with that penetrating grimace, to give the “gimme” motion with his hands, as a wad of cash is tossed towards the podium. The joke is hardly a complex or particularly clever one, but the timing and delivery is impeccable: The way Joel’s body shifts in one full, semi-fluid motion from pitchman to debt collector feels natural, intuitive. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine any other NBA player pulling it off. (Tellingly, a separate spot in the same campaign features Damian Lillard in a similar but slightly more conflicted role, and is not nearly as memorable.)
Does it matter whether Joel Embiid is actually good at commercials? I say yes: The NBA is a stars league, and stars are cross-platform; say what any of us will about LeBron, there probably isn’t a one of us that couldn’t describe at least a half-dozen commercials of his over the years in detail. Taking off his shirt and dancing at Meek Mill concerts is certainly a good start, but to achieve his true potential, JoJo should be all over television, he should be partying in music videos, he should be getting killed in slasher flicks, he should co-host his own cooking show. And if you want to put it in terms that matter to us for basketball reasons, he should be getting as many of those opportunities as possible in Philly, lest he eventually deem it a priority to start looking for them elsewhere.
Anyway, he’s still a long way off from all of that, but these 15 seconds are a promising start to JoJo’s eventual multi-media empire. Soon enough, he’ll be giving The Look to all sorts of brands and platforms all across entertainment, and they’ll have no choice but to wind up and hurl their bundles of cash at him.