It was the biggest advertising campaign in track and field history.
Heck, it was one of the biggest advertising campaigns in the history of sports. Over an innovative eight-month, $30 million ad campaign, Reebok groomed unknown decathletes Dan (O'Brien) and Dave (Johnson) into American sports heroes who would medal in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona and, most importantly, push Reebok back ahead of Nike in the ongoing sneaker wars.
Sports and advertising had never seen anything like it. Starting with ads run during Super Bowl XXVI, Reebok put all its eggs in the baskets of two guys no one had ever heard of before, running commercial after commercial hyping their impending showdown and selling some sneakers along the way. And it was working. America had fallen in love with Dan and Dave.
The hook was simple and downright brilliant: Here are two guys fighting to become crowned the greatest athlete in the world. There they are as babies. This is them training. Become invested. Pick a side. Are you for Dan or Dave? Better yet, root for both. It was all "to be settled in Barcelona." Oh, and while you root for them, notice that they're wearing Reebok cross trainers and Pumps. Cheer them through the Olympics. Buy their shoes. They've helped them become the best, after all.
It was genius. And then, in the span of a few minutes on a hot, sticky New Orleans day, everything crashed and burned. Dan and Dave would become the greatest cautionary tale in sports advertising.
The whole thing was an oddity from the start and that's what made it so damn compelling. Here was a major marketing campaign built around two athletes from a second-tier track event. (The days of Bruce Jenner turning decathlon gold into fame were long gone.)
Carl Lewis? Nope. Let's go with Dan and Dave. It'd be like Under Armour ignoring Michael Phelps and putting all their advertising efforts into, say, long-distance swimming medal hopeful Connor Jaeger.
The Dan and Dave ads were ubiquitous, which would sound like an insult in today's world of specifically targeted, bland commercials that usually involve a backing Coldplay track. But back in 1992 Dan and Dave felt completely fresh, like an unfolding life story - a Boyhood for the commercial set. The first ad opened with Dan and Dave's baby pictures and continued to follow them through their life, right up until their current position as would-be Olympic stars.
Or so Reebok thought. The whole premise of the ads depended on one reasonably simple idea: Dan and Dave would make the Olympics. It wasn't just simple, it was certain. Of all the track athletes Reebok could reasonably depend on to make the Olympics seven months out, decathletes (one, the reigning world champion) were the best bet. One bad race and Carl Lewis is out. Pick two guys in the stacked American 400-meter field and they could either go gold-silver in Barcelona or miss the Games entirely. That's the brutal nature of the track trials in America. If you're not top three in the trials, you're not going. No matter what. So with 10 different disciplines in their event, Dan and Dave would have no trouble making the Games because even multiple slip-ups wouldn't be enough for anyone to catch them.
Fast-forward to the U.S. Olympic trials. The Dan and Dave campaign was in full swing, weeks out from an Olympics at which Reebok surely would have its ad campaign peaking as both men competed for gold.
There were Dan and Dave signs and Dan and Dave hats to go along with the Dan and Dave commercials. But at the start, the main problem was that the so-called rivalry was anything but. O'Brien was competing like he was in an 11-discipline event, with the added one being "dominating Dave." After seven events he was up by a whopping 512 points. He couldn't be caught.
With the world record in sight and the pole vault next, O'Brien passed on four starting heights to begin his runs at 4.8m. It shouldn't have been a problem - that was more than 40cm off his best. But when you miss the first vault (as O'Brien did), you start overthinking the second and when you miss the second (ditto) you wonder whether you messed up in passing on all the lower heights, thus setting up one final jump - turning what should have been a routine pole vault 43cm below a career best into the most pressure-packed moment of his life.
Dan O'Brien, the man predestined for the Olympics since Super Bowl Sunday, had to leap over a bar 4.8m off the ground to save himself from sports ignominy.
He started his approach twice and stopped both times. He was off. His timing was off. Everybody could tell. The so-called world's greatest athlete was in a free fall and, worst of all, he knew he couldn't escape it. O'Brien finally got his stagger down and when his pole hit the box and he started his rise, it was like he was weighted down by all the expectations on him. It was all over. He never even made it to the bar. He took zero points on the pole vault, meaning the Olympic team was an impossibility. Now it was just Dave.
The Monday morning quarterbacking began instantly. Why did O'Brien start so high, passing on easy attempts? Whose decision was that? Was he a victim of hubris? Of marketing? If O'Brien had just been regular ol' Dan O'Brien - mostly unknown guy with a modest Reebok contract going for the Olympics - would he have kept passing?
His coaches insist 4.8m was the right move. He was easily clearing it in warm-ups and the day's temperature, plus a minor injury, meant taking too many runs in the pole vault could be damaging to his remaining decathlon events.
Excuses, sure. But what else are you going to say? We made one of the all-time blunders? (I mean, if you clear the pole vault you could practically walk the 1,500 and still make it, so the whole "saving energy" thing doesn't jibe.)
Either way, it's a vicious beast. American track and swimming trials are one-shot deals. It doesn't matter if you're the reigning world champion with a world record in the crosshairs and the backing of a billion-dollar company behind you. If you don't clear that bar, you don't make the team. It's the ultimate, and cruellest, meritocracy in sports.
Reebok immediately pulled the spots, replacing them with ads from their Rocket campaign (Roger Clemens and Raghib Ismail). Then, much to O'Brien's credit, Reebok began having fun with the campaign. The commercials continued to run with both men, only one of whom would be competing in the Summer Games. One of the post-trials commercials had O'Brien laying on a lounge chair drinking from a glass with an umbrella in it while Johnson ran wind sprints.
O'Brien, who almost certainly would have won gold in Barcelona, lost out on millions. Johnson entered the Games as the favourite but ended up winning a disappointing bronze thanks to a stress fracture in his foot. (He became the first American to medal in the decathlon since Jenner.)
One month later, O'Brien ended up breaking the world record (a fellow competitor helped wave him down the homestretch of the final event - the 1500m). He eventually left Reebok for Nike, won two more decathlon world championships (for a total of three straight) and finally got his gold medal in Atlanta.
Dave Johnson summed up the whole affair pretty well. "We were supposed to be on Johnny Carson," he said. "Instead we ended up on Arsenio Hall."