Solo athletes steal the show in 3 winning ads for Athens
Ascant four years ago, at the Olympics in Sydney, the prevailing American ad imagery (for those who'd gotten over using the Chariots of Fire music) was the multi-culti beauty of the world coming together. Most advertisers were pushing global harmony (cue global music, force a link between athletic supremacy and the power of one's brand).
The Olympics are one of the few places where we do see the excellence of the whole world on display, in the form of each athlete's discipline and struggle. Still, the world is a very different place now; we seem to be going it alone as a country, and, correspondingly, I'm seeing a bit of a change in this year's Olympic ad offerings. There will always be the synchronized-swimming jokes (hello, Aflac and McDonald's), but overall it appears the focus has moved from the group to the solitary athlete.
This Visa spot with 19-year-old swimming phenom (and Time's nearly nekkid cover boy) Michael Phelps, in heavy rotation for the last month, has no doubt built awareness for Phelps and the brand. Oddly, it's vaudeville meets 21st-century Aquaman, as Phelps has to play out the oldest joke around. But it's exquisitely shot (on location in Greece and New York) and manages to capture Phelps' superhuman, superlong underwater wingspan so dramatically that, like some old guy at the Friar's Club who can still make you laugh, you gotta love it.
"Visa asks, 'How do you get to the summer Olympics?' " the announcer says. We see Phelps, the human fish, dive into the shimmering sapphire-blue waters of the Mediterranean, in the shadow of the Acropolis, and swim his signature butterfly stroke, through the dark of night, past a whale (whose form echoes his), until he reaches the considerably less sapphire waters of New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The time-honored payoff for the how-to-get-there joke, of course, is "practice," and the announcer actually says this, as our goggled hero taps Liberty Island, counts out loud—"One"—and heads back to Greece.
Without a true link to the athlete, Visa manages to let us slugs at home marvel at the idea of a grueling training process while enjoying the iconic resonance of three visual landmarks—the Parthenon, the Statue of Liberty and Phelps' shockingly aquatic, streamlined form.
But what happens after all that practice? Monster, also a longtime sponsor, offers its own single-person theory, but this one is a fish-out-of-water story. Part of a series of testimonials that are charmingly modern, unscripted and Apple-esque (except the backgrounds are rich blue-and-orange-and-brown Monster colors), this Olympic spot shows a big guy looking rather exposed and vulnerable, wearing a suit and formal shoes, sitting on a skimpy desk chair with wheels. He's identified only as "Lenny Krayzelburg, U.S. Olympian. "I won three gold medals at the Olympic Games in Sydney," he says. "Swimming is only temporary," he adds, his voice cracking. "I'm looking to get into the financial field. ... I know it's going to be hard starting from scratch, but you gotta start someplace."
The beauty of the spot is its clarity and simplicity and directness—no forced analogies to Olympic greatness. And Krayzelburg's essence really pops, so good luck on all fronts, Lenny.
Allstate uses the astonishing solo power of weightlifter Shane Hamman pressing (or maybe it's cleaning and jerking?) a good 500 pounds on stage in a 60-second spot. It opens on an obviously fake audience and moves to fake judges, fake coaches and Shane (who finished 10th in Sydney) starting to squat. With the soaring background music and Dennis Haysbert voiceover, I was girding my body for the unbearable earnestness to come. After all, this whole faux Olympic dynamic has been so widely parodied that it is hard to believe any advertiser could try to play it straight.
Sure enough, after Shane lifts the barbell clean over his head, he lets it down, and it thunders right through the floor of the stage, through another floor, and demolishes a car parked in the lot below. Haysbert says, "And with records certain to fall, the only question we have is, 'Are you in good hands?' "
It's startling and funny and brings the joke back to insurance. Making an accident joke, with cement flying and alarms sounding, is a bit risky—the big fear in Athens is security. Now there's a job for more than one person.
BBDO, New York
Acd, art director
Deutsch, New York
Executive creative director
Acds, art directors
Dir. of broadcast production
Epoch Films, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Director/dir. of photography
Leo Burnett, Chicago
Group creative head
Cd, art director, copywriter