The arresting new ad for the anti-Nike.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 15 2003 11:03 AM

What's Up, Chucks?

The arresting new ad for Converse sneakers.

Authenticity alert: Hipster brand scores for Nike
Authenticity alert: Hipster brand scores for Nike

Of all the well-known sneaker makers, Converse must have the lowest profile as an advertiser. So its new commercial may not seem like a big deal. But in fact the spot—see it here —is of special interest, both because it's pretty cool and also because it comes just a few months after the announcement that Converse has agreed to sell out—to Nike, the shoemaker giant that seems to be its polar opposite.

The ad takes place on an empty basketball court. We hear the shoe-squeaks and whoops of a game in progress, but all we see is the ball: Through some special-effect process, the ball whips around the court alone, as if tossed and dribbled by invisible players. Meanwhile, Mos Def offers a verse narration, which ends like this: "Before the money, and before the fame; before new and old school—before school had a name; it was only the ball and the soul of the game. The First School. Converse."

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It's a really arresting and attention-getting spot, although there are a couple of odd things about it. One is the decision not to show the shoes moving around on the court—this is a sneaker ad, after all. The other (possibly related) is that you would have to be old-school indeed to hit the court in Chuck Taylor All-Stars these days. The number of pros who wear them is roughly zero, and while the fact that Chucks haven't changed is one of the things that appeals about them aesthetically, it also means they've been hopelessly outmoded by advancements in "shoe technology." Converse long ago migrated from a brand for athletes to a brand for hipsters, indie rockers, and lazy poseurs such as myself.

Converse is actually one of the very few brands that mean much to me on a personal level. It's been my sneaker of choice for almost 20 years now, and I really have a hard time imagining buying an offering from a rival like Adidas or—especially—Nike. Converse is the no-BS yin to Nike's all-style-and-image yang, the perennial underdog to bullyish Nike. So the buyout is disillusioning, like hearing that Elvis Costello is writing jingles for Microsoft (he's not, as far as I know). Clearly I'm not the only one who feels this way; shortly after the Nike deal was announced, the Washington Post interviewed various dismayed anarchists and college students who vowed never to buy Chucks again.

So you can see why Converse may want to float an ad right about now that's effective at, as a company release put it, "leveraging its authentic heritage." The clever thing about the "First School" notion is that while it appears to push the idea of an "authentic" basketball shoe, it's really more about an "authentic" fashion statement.

That sounds like an oxymoron, and strictly speaking it is. But in marketing, and maybe everywhere in pop culture at this point, "authentic" doesn't really mean authentic. It means "not so obviously phony." If I were to wear the latest Nike model, I'd look like a fraud; if I were to select footwear that expressed my "authentic" self, it would probably be a distasteful and worn-out pair of slippers. Chucks offer the illusion that I am coolly indifferent to the latest trends. I want to seem above it all, not out of it. In other words, what I want to be is not so much authentic as convincing.

Converse really does have an "authentic heritage," and the company is smart to make that a selling point. We'd all like a little more authenticity in our lives, and apparently it's possible to solve this problem by doing exactly what Nike did—by going out and buying some.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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