CANNES, France—Thirty-six years after the momentous day in Montreal when she scored the first perfect 10 ever in Olympic gymnastics history, Nadia Comaneci still can't believe it really happened.
"It's always emotional when I watch that," the Romanian athlete, now 50, told an audience at the Cannes Lions festival here, immediately following the world premiere of her new Visa commercial, which shows footage of that infamous routine on the uneven bars.
"I was 14 years old in those Games in 1976, and I was too young to know what was going on," she said. "I was hoping my mom and dad were watching me. It was 2 in the morning back in Romania. I had no idea of history or anything."
She once again told the well-known story of how the scoreboards in the Montreal arena were not equipped to actually show a score of 10. Not knowing what else to do, the scorekeepers listed the score as 1 instead. "I thought it was a pretty good routine, but then I saw the 1 on the scoreboard. I was like, 1 is not a good score," Comaneci said. "The history of the perfect 10 is really a 1. But 1— being first—is good, too."
Comaneci was a special guest on the panel, which was convened to discuss TBWA's long-running Olympic marketing campaign for Visa. "It's an honor to be a part of this," she said of her new spot—shown on the video screen in the Debussy Theater—part of Visa's gold-hued 2012 Olympics campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles.
Antonio Lucio, global chief marketing, strategy and corporate development officer at Visa, said the company is proud of its 25-year association with the Olympics—and that it's been perfect platform from the beginning because of the global nature of the event and the global availability of Visa's credit-card services. But while the campaign focused in the early years on that more rational product pitch—with the line "It's everywhere you want to be"—it has since evolved into almost purely emotional messaging, first with "Life takes Visa" and now with "Go world."
"Go world," which was originally conceived as "Go humans," purely celebrates the human achievement on display at the Olympics, and pointedly eschews any sort of nationalism or favoritism. It celebrates all athletes from all countries—the ones in the spots are simply those with the most amazing and compelling stories.
"We are normally 50/50 on rationale/emotional in our marketing," Lucio said. "With the Olympics, it's 100 percent emotional. But even the rational dimensions of our brand grow with Olympic marketing. With consumers, once the heart is committed, the brain will follow."
Patrick O'Neill, executive creative director on Visa at TBWA\C\D, related the recent history of the campaign, saying the black-and-white still imagery used in the early 2008 spots was inspired by Ken Burns's Civil War miniseries—and that showing moments frozen in time captures universal human truths. ("TV was black and white when I was competing," Comaneci interjected jokingly.)
"There are no flag colors or team colors. Just the human spirit," O'Neill said. "We've given it a beautiful gold treatment this year. The idea was not to see the barriers that separate us, but to see what unites us."
Crucially, Morgan Freeman's voice has lended gravitas to the campaign, too. "The clouds parted, and God's voice came down," O'Neill said.
To tell this year's stories, the creatives combed through athletes' histories, looking for moments of human achievement that might not even be tied to athletic success. "We told the stories that really moved us," said O'Neill. "We looked at the athletes as humans, not even as athletes. Their level of success almost didn't matter. What mattered was their story. Did it almost make you cry on paper?"
O'Neill showed the spot with Lopez Lomong, the Sudanese child soldier who grew up to become a U.S. Olympian. And in premiering Comaneci's ad, he said her story was timeless. "She goes from Clark Kent to Superman, and you see that happen in 30 seconds," he said.
While they may have crossed the finish line in one piece, Lucio revealed that client and agency struggled initially with the development of "Go world," and said Lee Clow was the one who stepped in and warned Visa not to dilute it.
"This goes to the heart of who Lee Clow is," Lucio said. "He told me, 'You are going to make a mistake by stripping this campaign of its core essence.' I shrank. I backed down. And I said, 'You know, you're right.' … Thanks to Lee Clow, this campaign is what it is. Sometimes the client is wrong, and you need to fight for it."
"Go world" may be, in terms of messaging, one of the broadest pieces of emotional advertising ever made. Yet the execution of the campaign is also targeted and tactical. The ads are airing in dozens of countries, and each country gets unique versions—a local athlete will appear first in a spot, for example, followed by bigger global stars like Comaneci and Michael Phelps.
There is also a major social element this year, as Visa is inviting people to cheer online—by clicking on a Facebook app or even recording and uploading videos cheers for particular athletes.
These additions extend the immediacy of a campaign that was already a pioneer in operating in real time. In 2008, Visa crafted a spot congratulating Michael Phelps on his record eighth gold medal—and aired it in the pod right after he achieved it. (Had he lost, a different spot would have aired.) For the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Visa's spots included video footage from that very night of competition. Visa's next step, this year, will be to included fans cheering for particular athletes in spots celebrating those athletes the moment after they win.
One fan that Visa can certainly count on is also a famous athlete—Comaneci herself. "I really like the idea of the unique way they're telling the stories," she said. "The Olympics is all about the athletes. When the Games are over, the only thing you remember—the only thing that matters—is the success and the stories that were told."