We see a woman wearing a sports bra, but she's not pulling a Brandi Chastain—her shirt isn't triumphantly stretched over her head while she does a victory jig.
Instead, she's in the privacy of her own cabin, at night, washing up before bed, where it's perfectly reasonable to have stripped down to a sports bra and shorts. As she runs a bath and combs her hair, she looks in the mirror and spots him.
It's a homicidal maniac in a hockey mask brandishing a chain saw, coming at her. I hate when that happens. This is the story of the Nike spot, shown during the Olympics, that NBC pulled last week after receiving thousands of irate phone calls decrying violence against women.
Over the years, I have been hypersensitive to gratuitous and sexist images; I'm one of the all-time critics of violence against women. I have zero tolerance for any of it.
But I thought the spot was funny. Perhaps it was too well made to be seen as a proper parody of a cheesy slasher film—especially during the scary pursuit part. Still, it was clever.
Here's why: This is not just any woman in a sports bra. She's Suzy Favor Hamilton, an Olympic distance runner, and there's a payoff. Hamilton hotfoots it out of the cabin and into the woods, leaving her psychopathic stalker in the dust, wheezing. He's so exhausted, he's forced to remove his mask, put down his chain saw and go home. Thus, it turns the average horror movie on its head. In that genre, the screaming, running, half-naked girl usually ends up dead.
"Why sport?'' the title card asks. "You'll live longer.''
It's one of three ads in a new campaign. A second commercial also features someone being threatened and pursued, but it's a guy. His personal space isn't violated and invaded; the spot is set in broad daylight in a city. A teen skateboarder is chased in the street by a man (Neil Urwin) in a gladiator costume. The setup is so absurd we don't even need the Loony Tunes music in the background to get it. It's Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote in extreme urban/pre-Babylonian clothing. "Why sport?'' we're asked. "You might run into a gladiator.'' No one objected to this commercial, probably because it's so broad it's just not that amusing.
The third in the series is the charmer. Shot in Budapest, Hungary, it opens on circus people wailing over a downed elephant. "Is there nothing we can do?'' cries one performer. "I'm a human cannonball, not a doctor,'' says the other.
Suddenly, a team of bicyclists shows up! It's our hero, Lance Armstrong! With a massive inhale, he gives mouth-to-trunk to the pachyderm, and she is revived.
"Why sport?" pops us. "Healthy lungs'' is the answer.
Part of the horrified reaction to the horror spot, and no doubt NBC's swift reaction in pulling it, had to do with the Olympic viewership itself. The numbers were pretty dismal, and our own Marc Berman of Mediaweek.com confirms that the audience is "extremely older skewing.''
Perhaps these are people who dig Diagnosis Murder but don't get that Nike never uses an athlete as a straight endorser. It prefers to makes fun of the whole cycle of hype. This campaign is about life preparing you for sport.
But the cancellation of the spot also brings up an interesting feminist conundrum. For years, one of my criticisms of Nike work was that the men's spots were loose, cartoony and funny, while the women's were too earnest.
Maybe the image of a guy in a hockey mask out to kill a woman is too disgusting to be on TV. But as I recall, that's never stopped NBC from running commercials promoting Friday the 13th or Scream. Nike
Wieden + Kennedy
CDs (all spots)
Hal Curtis, Jim Riswold