This week, as the Cannes judges ponder the roster of Grand Prix contenders, at least one will stand out for its iconic power and essential Nike-osity: Beginning with undersea blobs and building to a blindingly quick bullet train, "Speed Chain" cleverly conveys a visually compressed, Darwinian assessment of speed. It's yet another commercial that combines cold technical wizardry with a big, smart, emotional brand identity.
Speed, and the fundamental idea of a food chain, are universal concepts, but like most top Nike spots, this one sells men's shoes. Our culture is more embracing of male athletes and always has been, and maybe that translates to better advertising. But I'm happy to report that this is changing.
A few weeks ago, too late for Cannes, Nike released "Marry Me," the most delightful and high-spirited running commercial ever created for women. Unlike previous Nike spots showing female runners who were legally blind or over 50, it's not at all PC and forced. Indeed, it's so human and exuberant and effortless and organic that all by itself, it appears to be a force of nature.
I'll admit that I'm a sucker for any piece of film shot in Italy. And this is a simple tale—told loudly and argumentatively, in Italian with subtitles—that packs a punch because it draws on a powerful ancient myth. Think the archetypes of Bulfinch meet the comic, dreamy imagery of Fellini, delivered on big, comfy, non-Cinderella running feet.
First, a little Greek-myth subtext: Atalanta was a famous female athlete. (As the story goes, when she was born, her father wanted her to be a boy so badly that he left her in the woods to be suckled by a bear. But I digress.) Since she could run faster than any man, she was advised to avoid marriage. But she didn't want to appear weird or anything, so she came up with a plan to avoid the knot while seeming to embrace it: Confident that no one could, she announced she'd marry any man who could beat her in a foot race.
Because these were the days before Ultrawick microfibers and sports bras, Atalanta tended to strip down to her underwear to run, which drove the boys crazy. Despite knowing the penalty if they lost—instant death from the javelin tucked in Ata's underwear—they still lined up to compete.
Here's where it gets all Harry Potter: A love-crazed guy named Hippomenes appealed to the goddess Venus. By placing some golden apples from a sacred Cyprus tree en route, he outran her, and she married him. This being Greek myth, they were later turned into lions for making love too frantically, but we need not go there.
The road to "Marry Me" begins in Gerace, a picturesque village in Italy's heel. Open on a scene throbbing with hundreds of local men standing in the town square, applauding and shouting. (They all seem to be wearing their own everyday wardrobes, although one geezer looks preposterous in running shorts and a sweatband on his head.) A gorgeous young woman (Francesca Brogi, a member of the Italian national track team) announces, "I'll marry the man that catches me."
She throws off her jacket and takes off like a shot on a loopy journey through the cobblestone streets, up medieval walls, around clay roofs, over the tops of cars and out to the country as the testosterone-fueled horde chases her, like a bunch of bulls in Pamplona. It's chaotic and funny and the pacing is great, as are the cuts. Despite the foot pounding, the sprightly music gives every scene an absurdist feel.
In the best merging of the product into the narrative that I've seen, a white-haired man who looks like Geppetto is shown at home, tenderly holding a woman's sneaker. "I could not catch her. She took pity on me and gave me this," he says, cradling Francesca's Shox Bella, then kissing it. What a great reversal: In the (European) fairy tale, a woman sits in cinders, waiting for her prince to come, while her desperate, ugly rivals mash their feet into an impossibly tiny glass slipper. Here, the touching suitor nestles up to the solid, supportive shoe that allows the woman speed, power and escape.
That's quite a different message for a culture in the throes of The Bachelor and The Stepford Wives, however jokey the pneumatic, robotic, husband-obsessed vixens are supposed to be. Another great thing about the spot: The runner is strong, sexy, healthy and beautiful, not at all like the skeletal types that the power guys in major U.S. villages tend to chase after.
By the spot's end, Francesca is out on her own on a country road, free and clear, when we see a guy sitting in a, yes, Cyprus tree. With a shout, he leaps down to race after her. (The mad chatter in Italian is intriguing throughout.)
The guy in the tree alludes not only to Atalanta; Fellini planted many deranged, lovesick men in trees as well. It's a primordial thing, but here it also serves to show who has reached the top of the speed chain.
wieden + kennedy,
Executive creative directors
Hal Curtis, Mike Byrne
Lionel Goldstein/public domain/czar films