“We’ve never beaten Ghana,” explains a very deep, slightly familiar voice. It’s terrorist-annihilator Jack Bauer—er, actor Kiefer Sutherland—the ominous narrator of ESPN’s (DIS) World Cup promos for the American soccer team. He informs viewers that the first round “is called the Group of Death,” not because the U.S. will lose, “but because we’re in it.” This time, the enemy of the state is a “West African nation about the size of Oregon.” They knocked our team out of the last two World Cups “and really seemed to enjoy it.” Once that’s explained, the spot morphs into an over-the-top advertisement for the U.S., complete with waving flags, saluting marines, and many guitars—when they’re not strumming, you hear the cries of soaring eagles. A similar promo ran about a week later, before the U.S. tied Portugal.
Sports fans are accustomed to such schmaltzy montages, which usually run during commercial breaks to sell products. Rarely do they invoke national security. In 2006, John Mellencamp shilled for Chevrolet (GM) by singing Our Country in front of a pickup truck while images of Rosa Parks and the Katrina floodwaters flashed onscreen. For the 2012 Super Bowl, Chrysler (F:IM) rolled out its “Halftime in America” campaign, in which Clint Eastwood lifted up a downtrodden Detroit. At this year’s Super Bowl, the company reprised that campaign, getting a grizzled Bob Dylan to remind us to buy American: “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland assemble your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.”
Photo Illustration by Alis Atwell
The Chrysler spots were hits, according to Nielsen ratings, but “patriotic ads are hard to do,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Certain kinds of patriotism are now associated with extreme politics. It’s muddied the waters for companies.” Patriotic commercials proliferated after Sept. 11, but once the Iraq War made national politics more partisan, companies shied away from aligning themselves with the U.S. Enough time has passed that brands can tug a little harder on America’s heartstrings, something beer companies such as Anheuser-Busch (BUD) and truck brands like Dodge have perfected.
ESPN’s video is a jingoistic version of those companies’ sentimental ads. There’s the scratchy-voiced male narrator—one who plays a uniquely American action hero—talking as if U.S. exceptionalism rests on our ability to kill the other team at soccer, a sport that’s not even popular here. “It really makes you shout ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ even if you have to pause and say, ‘Wait, who are we fighting again?’ ” noted Adweek writer Sam Thielman, one of 15 million people who tuned in to the U.S.-Ghana match, according to Nielsen.
The spot was produced by Victory Pictures, a Connecticut-based firm that does work for most of the major sports networks. The studio’s other clips are just as extreme: A promo for the 2013 NFL Draft featured 50 Cent rapping about persevering and getting picked for the team; an intro for NBA Countdown showed sports journalist Bill Simmons and retired basketball player Jalen Rose walking down the street as cars blew up behind them. Victory is “an extension of who we are,” says Jed Drake, ESPN’s executive producer of World Cup coverage. “The credits say Keifer, but I can tell you that in [internal] e-mails it’s been ‘Nice job getting Jack Bauer.’ ”
Sutherland’s baritone is often heard in promos, but they don’t usually reference his famous character so directly. In the past few years, he’s voiced soothing commercials for Bank of America (BAC), Intel (INTC), and a California cancer hospital named City of Hope. In all of these, his slow, stern cadence is the hardened alternative to Morgan Freeman’s wise tone. It’s the gruff response to Martin Sheen’s presidential charm. Sutherland is the stable dad to Julianna Margulies’s responsible advertising mom.
He’s also the reason that the soccer promo got viewers screaming at their TVs. “I have watched the pre-game video for US v. Ghana, narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, approximately 50 times now and it never gets old,” tweeted Caroline Akers, one fan who helped the clip go viral. Victory is trying to get Sutherland to film a third time, but it’s had trouble reaching the actor while he’s shooting 24. “There are a few more badass guys out there to pick up the torch,” Drake says. “A few James Bonds have played that role.” It won’t even matter that Bond’s not American: Sutherland is Canadian and has said he’s rooting for the English team.