For Nike, It Only Takes a Sparq

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This Nike Sparq campaign broke on American Idol and started gaining traction during the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament; two new TV spots will debut this week. The current commercials begin with a taunt, a bully haiku, really: “My better is better than your better.”

The line certainly one-ups any typical trash talk, especially as uttered by San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. In a press conference setting, he opens both spots like a poet.

The 30-second version is classic Nike: incredible cinematography with stunning, saturated color, genius art direction, seamless cuts and, of course, famous athletes making weirdly inscrutable, self-aggrandizing statements. “My quick smells like French toast,” Tomlinson announces. (I’d imagine that’s a big improvement over someone else’s quick, which might smell like socks.)

The focus on speed and improvement, otherwise expressed as “quick” and “better,” is an outgrowth of the Sparq program, which is painstakingly outlined (complete with training films) on Briefly, Sparq is not a barbecue restaurant chain, but rather an acronym for speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness. It’s an elite athletic training and rating system, with its own science-based library of drills and tools, including a database against which to assess your skills.

In partnering with Sparq, Nike is selling the weird-looking tools, too, like hurdles and a ladder. A slew of “better”-talkin’ Nike pro athletes — soccer stars Landon Donovan, Hope Solo and Abby Wambach; lacrosse players Kyle Harrison and Ryan Powell; basketballers Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy and Diana Taurasi; major leaguer Matt Holliday; NFL running back Adrian Peterson — populate the spots. They’re captured at practice, and sometimes in slow motion, using the tools and doing the drills, which do indeed look strange. The weirdest is the parachute, which comes in sizes M, L and XL. (“What size is your parachute?” would seem to be the resulting question.) Apparently, running with it increases resistance for strength and speed training, and allows some kind of unique brain connection to the body that also boosts speed.

Between watching gorgeous visuals and identifying the athletes and what they’re doing with this strange equipment, there’s a lot to digest in 30 seconds, never mind making sense of what they’re saying. For example, in a lightning-quick cut, the feisty and adorable Wambach says she’s “Quickie Von Quick quick.” A regular boy says, “Your agility owes my agility $20.”

In place of those statements, the 60-second version features beautifully paced title cards with lines that build to the “My better is better” crescendo with “My speed is better. My agility is better. My reaction is better. My quick is better,” all spelled out in bold type.

What makes the :60 transcendent, though, is its hard-driving industrial music. Opening with the lyrics, “I want my money back,” the song is so visceral, stripped down and fresh that I was compelled to go to the Internet (along with a lot of others) and find out what it was.

The track is the work of rapper-rocker-poetry slammer-Def Jammer Saul Williams, doing “List of Demands (Reparations)” from his 2004 CD. His lyrics are rhythmic, powerful and political. The song goes, “I got a list of demands written on the palm of my hands/I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand./We’re living hand to mouth! You wanna be somebody? See somebody? Try and free somebody?”

Given the subtext, there is a bit of a disconnect in using Williams’ music to sell an athletic training system to a bunch of jocks.

But Williams has a new CD coming out, which could be why someone as subversive and edgy as he would sell out to Nike. His producer is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, whose troubles with record labels drove him to the Web. Seems the only way for a musician to make money these days is to license his work for ads, TV or movies.

Still, there’s also genius in the pairing: Williams famously wrote an “open letter to Oprah” after her public excoriation of rappers and hip-hop artists who use the “N” word. In it, he explains that “Hip-hop is rooted in competitiveness.