Nike Deftly Promotes The Serious Athlete, Not The Company
Donde estan los toros? This is one of the few spoken lines–“Where are the bulls?”–in this hugely engaging, swoosh-free and mostly language-free Nike campaign from Wieden & Kennedy. The question comes at the end of this commercial, released last week, which shows the running of the bulls through the town of Cuellar, Spain, before a bullfight.
And it’s bull-demonium as the great beasts pound through the old cobblestone streets. The locals scream and run for cover when suddenly, a bunch of Minnesota Vikings, in their helmets, padding and abbreviated summer wear, descend from a side barrier smack into the bull trail and bore down, achieving full block. Back at the arena, the toreador is left solo in the spotlight, pondering that existential question.
Even my 8-year-old son, already very selective about only wearing Adidas and Airwalk sneakers, knows that Nike has taken its knocks lately. So the genius of the campaign is that Nike manages to present the sometimes funny, sometimes violent drama and the muy loco intensity of the serious athlete, while the marketer itself deftly steps out of the way.
So quiet and self-effacing is the branding that we only get a teeny little lowercase script logo (not even a capital N!) placed on the screen at the end with the tagline, “What are you getting ready for?” That answer, in the form of a question, is so nonpreachy, nonjudgmental and such a nonpronouncement that it comes packaged in parentheses to make it sound more modest.
Actually, at this time of ambivalence about most things, when the country seems to have been knocked off its economic and social moorings, more and more advertisers are using question taglines.
I could make a whole Marty-like play just using them–and the circular nature of the conversations that ensue. Here’s my homage to recent ads:
Character 1: “Where do you want to go today?”
Character 2: “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
Character 1: “Got milk?”
Character 2: “We just ran out. But that’s a good idea. We could go get some now.”
Character 1: “Have you driven a Ford lately?”
Character 2: “You’re gonna start? I know the Toyota’s old, but it still gets around. Get in. And nice shoes, by the way. What are you getting ready for?”
You get the idea. The tagline as question invites us in.
In getting to that hyper-place of the master athlete, some of the Nike spots illustrate the nasty, anti-social side of competitive training. The spot using Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs shows him walking down the street, swatting objects out of people’s hands, as if he were swatting a basketball.
This standard move is downright cruel off the court; he starts by swatting the mail (probably a Social Security check) out of the hands of a pitiful, little old lady and ends with, yes, taking candy from a baby. (in this case, a cool little girl who gets it back). It’s too edgy to be funny. The other fish- (or athlete-) out-of-water scenarios, applying the rigors and hyper-discipline of the athlete in alien circumstances, work much better. “Mountain Man” showcases Jerome Bettis, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, violently flinging himself down a hill, into trees and dirt. As violence goes, self-immolation is always funnier.
My big favorites, though, involve the women. The spot with Gabrielle Reese saving some blowhard husband choking on his meat in a restaurant (she gives him a running Heimlich) is hilarious. I love the very end, where she returns to her table and she and her friends rotate seats. “Rehab,” with downhill skier Picabo Street, is a real grabber, too. She’s shown in the hospital, in a wheelchair, with one of her legs in a cast. (The other foot is Nike-shod.)
Picabo makes a downhill run for freedom, shooting past the newborns in the nursery, through a corridor, down a staircase and out the double doors of the emergency-room entrance.
Having covered Nike advertising for more than 10 years, through all the cycles of hype and anti-hype, of turning athletes into celebrities and making fun of the cult of stardom, of “Just Do It” and the pale, watery “I Can,” this is the first time I’ve seen male and female athletes integrated so effortlessly into the same campaign, where all embody the same spirit. That’s a huge improvement from a mere five years ago, when it was a big deal to have a Nike spot aimed at women.
Speaking of effortless integration, the spot “Marathon Man” is so inclusive and beautifully paced, it’s almost hypnotic. It’s a morning jaunt in the life of just your average marathon runner (some unsuspecting guy in an Ithaca T-shirt). He heads out the door and, in his run, is joined by some of the world’s greatest runners: guys from Kenya, a woman–Uta Pippig, who is terrific here and, next to Picabo, has one of the great names of all time–in a dress carrying groceries who quickly disposes of both to join the herd and Michael Johnson, who rushes out of a cab and into the fray. They intensify the pace, but Mr. Ithaca manages to escape and run home. It’s a small world after all.
It’s a great compliment, I think, that these spots have achieved intensity without atti-tood or, even worse, ad-itude, my coinage for Killer Capitalist Giants trying to reach kids by showing their maverick, cool, hip and generally wid it sensibilities.
These spots are not about the cult of Nike or the cult of celebrity. They are all about the athlete’s work. And by the way, those bulls are muy macho.