For some people, Nike is the brand they love to hate. For me, it's a brand I hate to love. While I don't own any Nike products, and I find the ubiquity of the swoosh a little annoying, I'm (almost) always impressed by the company's ads. Sometimes I'm impressed even if there's something about the ad that reminds me why the Nike image bugs me.
The latest Nike spot to generate a ton of positive buzz for the brand was the so-called "streaker" ad. It debuted during the recent NFL playoffs and ended up getting more attention than pretty much all of the ballyhooed spots that ran during the actual Super Bowl. If you haven't seen this ad, go to this Flash-heavy Nike site and click "Commercials." When the ad begins, it seems as if it is coverage of an English soccer match, making you wonder if perhaps you hit the remote control by accident. The match is broken up by a streaker, whose evasion of security officials is drolly commented upon by the English announcers. The man wears nothing but a scarf and a pair of running shoes—Nike running shoes. There's a shot of these, but it's not until one announcer comments that "He's got the shoes to thank" for his ability to outrun the guards that you realize what's going on. We've come to expect a rapid-cut, high-adrenaline approach to shoe and other athletic gear ads, but this spot succeeds in part because it's so low-key in its pacing. (In a surprising attempt at advertising jiujitsu, Reebok has put out an ad in which its spokeslinebacker, Terrible Terry Tate, tackles the streaker. You can see it here, but Reebok makes you register for the privilege.)
This is the sort of thing that can make even a Nike skeptic admit a certain fondness for the company's continually innovative advertising—particularly noteworthy because the firm has kept it up for so long. But just when I'm ready to concede this very point and count myself among the solidly impressed, another Nike ad goes just far enough in the wrong direction that I can be irritated again.
In this case it's a basketball-themed spot, which you can see here (after you endure a lengthy music-and-Flash hype intro). The ad is, of course, mostly very cool. The soundtrack is a catchy riff by the Neptunes. Most of the action is one-on-one hoops scenes, with Gary Payton facing off against Steve Nash and Tony Parker against Jason Kidd. The spot, which will apparently have sequels, is called "The Battle: Speed."
Mostly it's fine—the visuals and the music work well together, it's all kind of exciting and entrancing. The face-off court scenes are in an empty gym, but sometimes there are shots of pickup games or one-on-one battles in urban playgrounds or in gyms, where a rowdy, multiethnic crowd whoops from the sidelines. There are also a few stray shots of graffiti-covered walls and so on. And, in one very quick cut, two big, scary dogs on tight chains lunge at each other, fangs bared.
What's that about? "Our commercial focuses on the edginess of urban basketball," a Nike spokeswoman commented to my fellow New Orleanian Chris Rose, whose column in the Times-Picayune is the only one I'm aware of that has questioned the ad. Obviously, she said, Nike does not "support" dogfighting. The ads are simply about the "need to win. That's the edginess we're trying to get across."
Right. I'm sure Nike doesn't support dogfighting, which is a real and sad problem in a lot of inner-city neighborhoods. (For the record, the problem is not with any particular dog breed, the problem is in how the dogs are brought up and trained.) I'm not exactly a PETA member, but when I read about things like a recent bust here in New Orleans involving the seizure of 19 scarred and mangled pit bull terriers (18 of whom had to be put down) and telltale dogfighting equipment, it makes me think: Hey, that's a phenomenon that I, as a consumer, don't think corporations should winkingly convert into a coded symbol to enhance the streetwise edginess of their product.
But that's what Nike is doing, and knows it's doing: Hoops, sneakers, the Neptunes, graffiti, and big snarling dogs that you know on sight you'd better cross the street to avoid. Nike's brand czars probably know as much about the signifiers of "urban edginess" as anybody on the planet—or at least as much as anybody in the marketing business. They know that they don't have to "support" organized dogfighting to add a little edge to the brand. The package of images and sounds is not thrown together haphazardly, it's selected with extreme care and calculation. Which is exactly why, of course, Nike's ads are so powerful in the first place.