Helstein, M. (2003) 'That's Who I Want To Be. The Politics and Production of Desire Within Nike Advertising to Women', in Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol 27, No 3: 276 - 292.
[Some rather useful points about the paradoxes of Nike's attempt to develop advertisements aimed at women, but enmeshed in heavy handed Lacanian terminology and explanatory frameworks which assume some universal structure and universal responses. Much feminist writing wants to break out of this unhappy framework, of course --eg see this file].
Nike is a very successful company, but one that has been criticised, especially in terms of its international labour relations. Nike advertising has also been criticised [and there are some useful references which relate to race, page 276]. The latter focus on how Nike uses its power to devise advertisements that produce particular notions of race, class, gender and sexuality. [These are simply assumed to be culturally dominant throughout, based on the assumption that without them Nike could not have been a corporate success. As we shall see, this turns on Lacanian notions of desire and how it is constructed within the discourse of Nike advertising . Of the many criticisms that could be made, the most obvious one is that this ignores the plethora of alternative texts and everyday experiences that offer quite different notions].
Key notions are identified in Nike advertising, turning on what it means to be a female athlete. Lacan is going to be used to explain how this subject is 'summoned, disciplined, produced, and regulated' (277), and how it works within 'psychoanalytic understandings of fantasy and desire' (277). It all turns on notions of excellence and emancipation and how they are reconciled within 'the discourse of Nike'-- basically, these notions have to be stripped of any particular meaning [or filled with neo-conservative meanings -- Helstein seems to vary here], and then articulated together in a way that enables viewers to construct their own fantasies and desires. The Nike discourse has developed '"its own set of rules and procedures that govern what is to count as a meaningful or truthful statement"' (Helstein page 278 quoting Flax). [In other words, the truth of notions of emancipation and so on should be understood in terms of their relation to other concepts in the Nike discourse -- this does offer a few problems if you want to suggest that some alternative meanings of emancipation, feminist or radical ones, have been suppressed, as Helstein does?].
Nike texts consist of the advertising logo, any advertising copy and representational images. The female athlete has been constructed differently over time. Until 1987, female athletes did not appear at all, and the first ad was not particularly successful. Later, more authentic representations were attempted. Overall, the campaign aimed at women is known as 'the Empathy or Dialogue campaign' (279 -- apparently terms introduced by Cole and Hribar*). Early versions included appeals to 'beauty culture' which stressed exercise as providing a more authentic kind of beauty, '"propaganda for the healthy self"', stressing the need for health routine so that one can become what one chooses to be (279, quoting Cole and Hribar).
More recently, athletic excellence has been the theme. Female athletes are commended for their commitment, and Nike is also seen as committed to their success by producing specialist shoes. Women's shoes have been named after successful female athletes such as Cheryl Swoopes [a highly successful basketball player]. A series of Nike adverts followed a fictitious girls' high school basketball team en route to a championship. The captions apparently 'suggest that participation is about what you sacrifice, or how many points you score, or what record you set, or who wants you to play for them; that losing is OK as long as you hate it, you're willing to pay the price for it, and you win next time; and finally, in the end you should simply win it all' (280). Another set featured interactions between some young girls and some established basketball stars: apparently in each one, the youngsters offer advice to the stars in a confident and expert manner. Here, it is 'The seriousness of purpose, the imperative to get it right and/or to excel' which predominates (281). Overall, excellence is the goal, and this is represented as a matter of personal progress and evolution.
This appeal to excellence could be seen as elitist rather than popular, however. It might be that Nike is targeting elite women athletes, but there are also more political themes: for example, excellence enables capitalism to accommodate itself to feminism, and picks up on the neo-conservative 'nostalgic liberal ' themes which stress free will and the pleasures of distinguishing oneself from unproductive others, or which explains social problems as a result of individual inadequacies. Emancipation has long been a theme in the Nike discourse generally, stressing that it is dedication plus the consumption of Nike goods that leads to personal transformation and empowerment [which explains its persistence without reference to any outside political beliefs?]. However, excellence and emancipation might be contradictory? However , both terms are used rhetorically in Nike discourse without any substantive meaning.
A Nike advertisement is explored in more depth to pursue these themes. A female basketball star (Cynthia Cooper) is depicted as if in 'an old torn scrapbook', which includes a small photograph of a young girl wearing the star's replica jersey (283). The text asks how people know that they are heroes and suggests some possibilities -- when small girls wear your replica jersey, when you win awards, when fans aspire to be you, and so on. In other words, excellence is being suggested but not exactly defined. 'This lack of a referent makes invisible, or at least slippery, questions of justice, ethics and values regarding what characterises excellence'(284). This means the Nike definitions are uncontested [within Nike discourse, possibly, but surely not in the wider cultural and political context which debates sporting success for women quite vigorously].
Emancipation can be included in these advertisements too [Helstein then proceeds to outline some strange metaphors from Zizek by way of illustration]. The point is to show that there can be neo-conservative implications in notions of emancipation [as in the idea of the American Dream of perfect social mobility, or meritocracy]. The particular implication is that individuals can overcome the barriers to excellence by emancipating themselves from constraining desires and interests. In particular, we need to emancipate ourselves from older versions of the self [by heading for some personal ideal self different from what we are now -- a personal kind of excellence, but one which is highly influenced by discourses of desire, Helstein will argue]. The desire for this sort of emancipation is 'the effect of neo-conservative, post-feminist, and nostalgic liberal rhetoric' (285).
We now need to explore Lacan on the mechanism of desire [I am not at all convinced that we do need to take this theoretical sledgehammer to crack a fairly obvious nut. The actual explanation of Lacan's mechanisms is quite neatly done, pages 285 - 6]. The signifiers in the Nike discourse appear as 'stable and unified concepts', but in reality they are subject to slippage and have been influenced by neo-conservative and liberal thought (286). [The allegiance to Lacan involves the usual paradoxes as well, especially in the view that 'There is not something that is really there, something that defines these terms in and of themselves. Instead, we only know the female athlete, or emancipation, or excellence in reference to their relation within the symbolic and the imaginary' (287). Presumably, this also applies to the kind of critical discourse that Helstein resorts to from time to time to criticise Nike conceptions?]. Within Nike's narrative, emancipation becomes a fantasy masquerading as knowledge: this fantasy locates the viewer and thus constructs our desire. [Serious problems here arise from working at this very general level at which the imaginary creates desire, and then bolting on the specific analysis so that particular Nike imaginaries must also create specific desires for their goods. This only works, of course, if Lacanian mechanisms are universal and everywhere, embodied in every specific discourse.]
More precisely, fantasy sets the scene for our desires. Unfortunately this means that desire cannot be fulfilled in practice, but must be consistently postponed instead. Specifically, the emancipation promised by Nike can never actually be achieved [for most of us], but this can always be blamed on personal inadequacies 'other desires, interests or circumstances interfering' (288). Individuals can be blamed for lacking the will and effort to transcend these circumstances.
Further, the moveable feast that is emancipation in Nike discourse offers us no respite or resolution, since we can always see a way to improve on what we are: in Lacanian terms, our ideal self 'is the embodiment of desire constructed by fantasy at the level of the signified' (288). The specific advert referred to above [the kids and the basketball stars] indicates this nonreferential notion of excellence. It lets us fantasise that we may eventually become a hero even though we don't realise it ourselves at the moment. This also avoids explicit politics [relating to the chances of actual social mobility]: these politics are rendered invisible and are uncontested [within the Nike discourse, it is important to insist again -- I should be very surprised if most people really conformed to the Nike view of social mobility without comparing it to the experiences of themselves and their friends at least]. However, because excellence is never defined, 'one can never be satisfied', just as with emancipation -- 'This reiterative performativite failure continually sets both up as desirable possibilities' (289).
Thus Nike adverts prevents excellence and emancipation as desirable but unattainable. Given Nike's commercial dominance, this discourse is likely to be seen as an expert one [lots to discuss here!]. Thus females really do take on these definitions and measure themselves against them, without realising the political context. Overall, Nike's knowledge of female athletes and their control over them is increasing: the effect is that 'it feels normal, natural, and innocent to aspire to the prescriptions of Nike advertising' (289). People are able to locate their own achievements within Nike discourse. They come to see their existing present selves as a barrier to emancipation -- the overall political effect of this is constraining and limiting [because it favours individual improvement rather than collective political effort?]. Holstein ends by arguing for understanding and awareness of alternatives, for limiting fantasy as an imaginary option, and for realising how it is that advertisements can create specific desires which lead to our consuming Nike products.
*Cole, C and Hribar, A (1995) 'Celebrity feminism: Nike style: postfordism, transcendence and consumer power', in Sociology of Sport Journal, 12 (4): 347 - 369