Nike ‘Fix’ Fails

With the recent Mel Gibson contretemps (a fancy word for the headlines surrounding the blue-eyed actor’s sad, abusive, late-night alcoholic phone rants to his baby mama), I was surprised that no one brought up the movie What Women Want.

A big hit from the year 2000, the film starred Gibson as a powerful Chicago ad guy — an all black-clad, million dollar-loft-owning executive creative director and something of a jerk to women, who, through an accident with his blow dryer (happens all the time!) in his onyx and marble bathroom, is suddenly able to hear women’s inner thoughts. Thus, he’s capable of seeing what a misogynist asshole he’s been all along. Armed with this new insight, he works with Helen Hunt to co-create a sensitive Nike commercial for women, all about listening to your inner voice as you run.

Which brings me to this latest Nike ad, the response from the company, via Wieden + Kennedy, to the problem that does have a name — The Toning Issue. These days toning seems to be what women want, and Nike has chosen to sit on the sidelines of the market.

The fastest-growing category in the footwear business, which started with MBT Shoes, and then was copycatted by Sketchers and Reebok, the toning shoe sector will achieve total revenue of about $1 billion in 2010. The shoe in various iterations has helped Sketchers and Reebok’s bottom lines considerably: the latter’s share more than doubled to 6.7 percent, or $90.3 million, and the former’s share tripled to 17 percent, or $225.7 million, according to SportsOneSource.

Of course, the idea of athletic shoes for walkers, to help get rid of cellulite, hardly gels with Nike’s brand image, which is more like “close the damn refrigerator door and get your rear end out of bed at 6 a.m. to train, i.e., just do it.” Given that positioning, it’s understandable that Nike would come out swinging with an ad like this. “The Ultimate Quick Fix” headline sets up the counterintuitive, holier-than-thou, one two three, and the tag, “The shoe works if you do,” is a good line, no doubt about it, and very fitting for the brand.

But this is one smug, defensive ad. The Church of the Holy Swoosh is being holier-than-thou and the result is off-putting at best. First of all, the design of the ad looks old-fashioned, like something out of 1983 — and slapped together at that. (“You want an ad? Here’s your ad!”) “The Nike Trainer One is not a magical toning shoe. It’s a training shoe,” says the copy, below a shot of the kicks. “Its DiamondFLX technology activates your muscles to work how they’re supposed to, giving you faster results from all those squats, lunges and classes that you do. So you get fit faster” is decent copy, but it seems to want to have it both ways by including the phrase “activates your muscles to work how they’re supposed to.”

There’s a glimmer of toner hope in the word “activation.” Otherwise, it’s oblivious because people are not wearing toner shoes to do squats or lunges. Rather, they are wearing them because they feel good to walk on. I have been wearing MBTs for five years, and when you do become a member of that club, you throw in the towel about any sort of coolness. You become a foot dork, and have to learn to revel in the ugly.

In an attempt to look cuter, I’ve bought all types — the sandals, the boots, — but with the signature wide wavy sole (which is why it works — it throws you off balance to make the muscles work harder), it’s the foot equivalent of walking around with a night brace. But I’m addicted — I don’t care because my MBTs have done wonders for my back and my knees.

So Nike can make fun, diss the entire category as “magical shoes.” But anyone who has benefited from wearing them (and the Reeboks don’t even look dorky) knows that the image kings are just being defensive and not really listening. Maybe the ultimate running shoe company needs an intervention with a hair dryer.