From the swoosh’s apex with Michael Johnson at the Atlanta games to being a mere footnote at the Rio Olympics, how Nike’s being a part of the status quo has failed to compel the next generation of consumer.
During the mid-’90s I thought I had found a home at the University of Oregon’s Journalism School. It was there I was surrounded by like-minded students who had all grown up a product of the ever-expanding universe of ESPN and MTV. Combined with being raised by the first generation of parents who were both forced to work to keep the dream buoyant, we were Patient Zero of a life marketed to in a 24-hour cycle.
The cool kids — the ones with the jokes — gravitated toward the advertising track. (To clarify, the “cool” kids in any given journalism school are a notch less cool than the drama kids, mostly because we couldn’t sing, dance or act — but we could criticize those who did. Now you understand why Bill Simmons, who is completely dyspeptic on screen, is like the journalism success story of his generation.)
Bottom feeders as we were, we found each other, made each other laugh and could sleep better at night knowing the next generation of screen addicts would be ingesting our slogans.
As I got into it though, I realized there wasn’t much room for creativity. What worked in advertising had worked for the last half-century — sometimes longer — and neither me, nor my contemporaries were going to change the fact that you have to leave them laughing or crying in order to get them buying.
So, I learned to accept this ever-shrinking world of ideas until the spring of 1996, when I was supposed to do a mock-up Nike ad for the upcoming Olympics. This particular assignment carried extra weight as we were told, Waiting for Guffman-style. that a few of the top projects would be selected for review by actual staff at Portland’s Wieden+Kennedy, the West Coast Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (before there was a SCDP) and the ad agency that made Nike.
I saw the other projects, most were variations on the then already shopworn Just Do It — one was even ‘Just ATL It” with pictures of athletes superimposed over Atlanta’s landmarks (the biggest problem being, outside a 20-story LA Law-looking generic building with the Coca-Cola emblem on the top floor, Atlanta has no landmarks.)
My idea was different: I wrote these 1,100-word long-form testimonials from the athletes about who and what helped create the person they are today. For the print ads, the copy was superimposed over them doing whatever sport it is they do.
I turned the project in, went and got a $4 pitcher of Black Butte at Rennie’s, kicked my feet up on the balcony railing and waited for a carrier pigeon to come drop the directions to my corner office.
I ended up getting a D.
The problems were many: The design was off. The words were unreadable. The prose wasn’t memorable. Nobody would suffer through that much text. The concept was murky. The whole thing would be lost on …everyone. It wasn’t central to the brand. And on and on and on.
Overall, the project, “Seemed sloppy and like you didn’t care much to read the assignment requirements,” said the last page of the critique.
I would like to say that I went into office hours and met with the professor or an academic advisor, but I didn’t. I can see now that the work was indeed half-assed and ego-driven, but at the age of 20, I only listened to the criticism I chose to hear.
I salvaged a C- in the class and moved on the next quarter to a couple softer mass media and culture critique courses. It was there, I finally got the first positive comment from a professor on a 500-word op-ed assignment where I complained about faculty having their own bathrooms: “Your words are muddy and your concepts are unclear, but sometimes they are also lyrical.”
I got a C+.
BOOM! A newspaperman was born.
It’s tough to say whether I’ve learned my lesson two decades later. My prose is often cloudy as a coastal morning and yet I’d like to think certain words or phrases do sometimes shine through the murk to guide the reader. My buddies from the advertising side did move on to Nike and Adidas and W+K all with varying degrees of longevity and success.
Some have made long careers and done some noteworthy work. Others have gotten lost in the bureaucracy of what those behemoths have become. One recently quipped that he couldn’t get himself fired from the mothership by doing nothing. “Doing nothing just means you got to keep your job. You have to stand out to get axed.”
I suppose that’s the nature of any business during the course of its lifespan. I think about Nike in terms of Kenny Moore’s Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder description of early days Phil Knight, a straight hustla importing track shoes from Japan, glue-gunning his logo on them and selling them out of the back of his car; juxtaposed with Knight’s own cinematic description of that very time in his recent memoir Shoe Dog: “I told Bowerman about my trip around the world. Kobe, Jordan, the Temple of Nike. Bowerman was especially interested in my time in Italy, which, despite his brushes with death, he remembered fondly. At last he came to the point. ‘Those Japanese shoes,’ he said. ‘They’re pretty good. How about letting me in on the deal?’”
It is pretty clear that Knight is rounding the final turn of his saga and knows well he is about to become little more than a name on a bunch of buildings. So you gotta incubate and protect that legacy.
In the meantime, as I watch these Rio Games, I see the stranglehold Nike had on the country, my school and my conscience two decades ago — is starting to fade completely. There will always be brand loyalists, but more than ever, both consumers and athletes are waking up to the notion that it’s about comfort, durability and identity and, more recently, where and how it’s made. It is, in other words, no longer about a swoosh.
If I’ve taken one thing away from the two decades of writing since my failed project, it is that not being central to the brand is the only way to move it forward. Companies which reward those who don’t take risks or show a conscience are on a slow boat to oblivion. Also, an athletes’ long-form story superimposed over their image is still something I’d love to see.
But that’s probably just me …and Under Armour: