What's wrong with the new anti-Nike campaign?

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 17 2003 11:58 AM

It Oughtta Be the Shoes

What's wrong with Adbusters' new anti-Nike campaign?

The Nike swoosh is a symbol with enormous power. And not just for the brand's fans and customers: No logo is more reviled by ideological opponents of the culture of marketing, those who see the incursion of the brand idea into all aspects of our everyday lives as both obnoxious and oppressive. The magazine Adbusters is one such opponent, so it's no great surprise that this antimarketing bastion's latest project is a fresh assault on fortress Nike. What's more surprising is that the weapon of choice is a marketing campaign for an Adbusters sneaker.

The idea is to counter Nike by selling a kind of delogoed shoe called the Black Spot sneaker—an "unswoosher," as Adbusters calls it. The sneaker would be manufactured in determinedly nonsweatshop conditions, would sell for $65, and would be emblazoned not with a stylized brand mark but with a big black dot. A planned print ad (see it here) says little about the product, stressing instead how the shoe will take on Nike and its head honcho, Phil Knight. The Black Spot, it says, is "Plain. Simple. Cheap. Fair. And designed for only one thing: Kicking Phil's ass."

It's always fun to throw rocks at big nasties like Nike, and generally speaking I'm a fan of Adbusters' caustic and provocative rhetoric. But this particular unswooshing plan has puzzled some even some antibranders, for an obvious reason: That black spot may symbolize a blotted-out logo, but it is also, unavoidably, a logo itself.

So far the skeptics' critique pretty much ends right there, but I don't think it's quite right to say that the black spot and the logo are essentially the same thing, and thus the whole exercise is a fraud. The campaign would still be sound if it really aimed to sell an alternative shoe that happened to sport an antilogo. The problem is that Adbusters is trying to sell an antilogo that happens to have a shoe attached to it. In other words, the spot and its supposed meaning aren't a byproduct of the campaign—they are the whole thing. But one of the most legitimate criticisms of blind logo loyalty is that it trivializes the logoed item itself: Don't worry about what we're selling, just buy the symbol we've stamped on it.

A rendering of the shoe looks a lot like a classic Converse low top, but at $65 it's much more expensive. (The last pair of Converse shoes I bought, about a year ago, cost around $35.) Why is that, exactly? Is the Black Spot sneaker particularly well-made? Will it last longer than a big-name shoe? Is it a great value? The planned campaign doesn't seem to address those utilitarian matters. And apart from including the word "fair" (which will mean little to consumers who aren't already fair-trade buffs), the ad doesn't even make a selling point of the socially responsible aspects of its product. So is the sales pitch based on the shoe's merits, or does it just suggest that wearing Black Spots will broadcast a facile message about how anticorporate (and therefore cool) you are? And if it's the latter, then isn't that precisely as vacuous as the ideology of the swoosh, which assumes that there is no better way to express ourselves than through the logos we choose (or reject)?

The Black Spot idea comes along at an interesting moment in the story of marketing, when many advertisers feel that direct pitches don't work anymore. Adbusters is in some ways right in tune with this, and is at its most entertaining when it uses commercial tropes to expose commercial hypocrisy. It's interesting to imagine this approach taken to a new level with an actual product competing in the real marketplace, sold on the basis of its real attributes—not its image. But rather than challenge the rules of the advertising game, Adbusters, this time around, is simply playing along. As a result, the plan for the Black Spot does not feel like a triumph for the forces of antimarketing—it feels like a capitulation. This campaign doesn't slow the momentum of the culture of branding; it's merely along for the ride.

And speaking of momentum: This column is in for a boost. This is my last Ad Report Card, and the column will be taken over by a great writer and frequent Slate contributor, Seth Stevenson. I'd like to thank the very nice editors of Slate, and I'd really like to thank the many and also very nice readers who gave me most of "my" better ideas. (Feel free to keep in touch via robwalker.net.) It's been a lot of fun.

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