Reebok follows fashion by choosing the Barratt Home Laureate to sell its trainers

From a mundane upbringing in north London and Birmingham, Skinner yesterday joined the international rap stars 50 Cent and Jay-Z as an ambassador for the sportswear giant Reebok.

The choice of the small-framed Skinner to front the brand's advertising campaign in Britain over the next 12 months represents a change in direction for Reebok, which usually favours sports stars to sell its wares.

Experts said the label was following a trend in advertising that sought to present men fed up with unbelievably glamorous and high-achieving characters in adverts with more accessible role models.

Claire Beale, editor of the advertising journal Campaign, said: "It has become quite fashionable in terms of the portrayal of men in advertising to go for less intimidating role models. Look at the success of the Lynx adverts which have a slightly geeky, man-in-the-street figure.

"If you're targeting a male audience, there's a sense that using someone who seems more like one of your mates can cut through. Men are less used to being bombarded with images of the perfect male."

The choice of the less than butch Skinner mirrors Marks & Spencer's campaign launched last week featuring the comedians Jimmy Carr and Bob Mortimer and the actor Martin Freeman.

Skinner, who has long sported Reebok Classics and has even sung about the trainers, follows in the footsteps of other rap stars with his deal. Run DMC famously advertised Adidas trainers after singing about their shoes in their 1986 hit "My Adidas", while MC Hammer promoted KFC and Taco Bell.

In the lyrics for his track "Let's Push Things Forward" from his debut album, Skinner sang: "Let's put on our Classics and have a little dance, shall we?" Earlier this month, Adidas announced that it had agreed a €3.1bn (£2.15bn) takeover of Reebok, a deal which will enable it to challenge Nike's position as the world's leading sportswear brand.

The new press and poster adverts featuring Skinner, which will appear on billboards and in men's magazines across the UK, are part of the brand's "I Am What I Am" campaign, launched in March. The adverts feature a quote from Skinner, which reads: "I never quite fitted into any scene. So I made my own, it's better to be yourself than a poor version of someone else." In the later stage of the campaign, The Streets' frontman is also likely to appear in a television commercial.

The Reebok campaign aims to encourage young people to embrace their individuality by celebrating their contemporary heroes.

Skinner joins an elite bunch, including the Hollywood actresses Christina Ricci and Lucy Liu, the US rapper Nelly, the Olympic champion Kelly Holmes, the NBA basketball player Allen Iverson, the tennis players Andy Roddick and Nicole Vaidisova, the skateboarder Stevie Williams and the Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

It is a far cry from the grim urban landscape of drink, drugs and failed relationships that Skinner, who has been called the "Barrett Home Laureate" usually sings about.

Reebok's European marketing vice-president, Andy Towne, said: "The 'I Am What I Am' campaign was intended to inspire young people to find their own voice by celebrating contemporary icons.

"Mike is a perfect fit for the brand because he has been a long-time wearer of the Classics range and a fan of the Reebok brand. This passion, along with his unique musical style, makes him an ideal ambassador for us."

Dylan Jones, editor of the men's magazine GQ, believes that Skinner is an ideal choice to represent Reebok because his appeal stretches beyond the urban youth culture that dominates his lyrics. "It is a very good marriage. Mike Skinner is iconic in the world of youth culture, but he also has really broad appeal. He's popular with the demographic that makes up the body of his work and the people who staff his songs, but he's also a rock star who plays stadiums," said Jones.

Born in north London and raised in Birmingham, with an accent that is a cross between the two cities, Skinner shot to fame in 2002 with his debut album Original Pirate Material, which sold more than 200,000 copies. He is now one of the leading lights of the "grime" scene, the UK's answer to hip hop.

His second album, A Grand Don't Come For Free, was hailed by the music magazine Q as the definitive album of 2004. He has set up his own music label, The Beats, and is working on his third album.

Sporting connections

LUCY LIU/REEBOK

The star, of Charlie's Angels and Ally McBeal, is one of the celebrities whose individuality is celebrated in the "I Am What I Am" campaign, in a series of commercials shot by Jake Scott, son of the legendary film director Ridley Scott.

MISSY ELLIOTT/ADIDAS

The hip hop star joined with Adidas to produce an "old skool" sportswear collection. The shoes and clothing line, called "Respect Me", marked the first time Adidas had worked with a non-athlete since the 1980s.

RUN DMC/ADIDAS

The New York rappers released "My Adidas" in homage to their favourite trainers in 1986. The group subsequently signed a deal worth nearly £1m to promote the brand, and Adidas brought out a trainer bearing the band's logo.

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