Barbara Lippert's Critique: Nike's Runners-Up

At first I thought this Nike spot was an ad for pants, since it features a flying bum. (A female one, so could it be called a flying buttress?) Certainly, the focus on the rear is a bit disconcerting, even if it is encased in tight black running pants (the little zipper pocket with the tiny red swoosh looks great). But this butt is in fantastic shape, which raises the question, When is it safe to objectify a woman’s derriere? And not just in a quick cut, but in a rather intense, prolonged close-up, in slow mo yet, so that every part of the gluteus maximus (or in this case, minimus) is shown bouncing?

I’d say the act moves away from assploitation when the owner of said rear is so willing to disembody and objectify herself that she gleefully refers to her behind in the third person. In a voiceover, she calls it “that” twice and “it” once, which is a bit weird. Oh, and she also happens to be Kathryn Martin, a record-holding runner who is 51, so all is forgiven.

“See that?” she asks. “That is 51 years old, and it can run a 5:08. Can I do a 5:02?” We get a quick, nicely cropped shot of her face at the end—she’s smiling, her eyes are crinkly, and her hair is graying at the temples. And, while her face reveals her general age, we get the feeling that her body is a temple.

That 50-year-olds live just like 35-year-olds is a social reality, but it’s a breakthrough for advertising. And Martin truly embodies the Nike work ethic. It’s a bit confusing when she switches from what “it” can do to what “I” can do, as if she and her ass were in competition, but the spot is quirky, and it has a choppy, dream quality that gets attention.

“Kathryn” is one of four spots in the “Speed” TV campaign, promoting Air Zoom Spiridon shoes. Shot by Errol Morris, the TV work focuses on individuals and their stories. It’s a low-key thing compared with “Speed Chain,” the big, glorious cinema commercial directed by David Fincher that rearranges the animal food chain, along with motor vehicles, according to velocity. It’s gorgeous and entertaining, another Nike knockout.

The TV work is not that kind of wowzer—the spots are shot on a more human scale and get across the determination of runners. But they’re wildly divergent in tone. Three of them use actual heroic runners: Kathryn, in the sanctification-of-the-ass spot, which is slightly loopy; an Olympian from Kenya who talks to the camera in a spot that’s loose and easy-funny like Nike ads past; and a legally blind runner whose spot is hyper-earnest and almost stilted. The final spot, which mixes trash talk and the world of competitive running, is loud and clever and Nike-ish, but features a young, brash actor, which makes for a completely different feeling.

“I am Kenyan,” says Bernard Lagat, a bronze medalist in Sydney. He’s a real find, a natural performer, and the spot is sweet and charming. But focusing on runners from Kenya is not exactly new—let us never forget the debacle of the “Just for Feet” Super Bowl spot, showing a team from the shoe store chain drugging a Kenyan runner and forcing sneakers on him.

Here, thankfully, Bernard is in charge. He has a mellifluous accent, and he runs with it. “Scientists have spent millions of dollars to find out why I’m fast,” he announces to the camera. “They don’t know why. But I’m fast. Very, very fast. I don’t need these shoes.” He tosses them aside. “Maybe you do.”

Marla Runyan (great name for a runner) is a hero, finishing fourth in the most recent Boston marathon despite being legally blind. It’s great to feature her in an ad, but it’s the only one that has no humor at all. “Someone else can look at the final turn and see the finish line. I come off that turn, and I can’t see it at all,” she says. “It just gives me reason to run harder and faster, because once I’m there, I’ll be able to see it.” The spot ends with a grim close-up of her eye. I don’t want to be un-PC here, but the spot is too solemn.

Whereas 15-year-old actor Myzel Robinson (who belongs to a running club as well) jumps off the screen in “Punk Runner.” He has all the arrogance of youth and a tremendous presence. “I’ll race my coach,” he says. “I’ll race my dog, any dog, you, your cousin, your auntie, your nieces … a world-class athlete, Lance Armstong on his bike …” He goes on and on: “I’ll race ’em, and I’ll beat ’em.” He couldn’t be clearer, either in word or on the screen, and it’s poetic. Just as you think it’s over, he comes back for a little coda: “And that’s the story.”

It’s the only spot in the series that seems to go with the tagline, “There’s more fast out there,” which I find something of a brain teaser. Years ago Spike Lee did a spot in which he said, “The mo’ colors, the mo’ better. Peace.” But “more fast” in a sentence with otherwise correct grammar seems odd.

This time out, compared with its usual stellar standards, Nike has not quite done it.