Armstrong, K. (1999) 'Nike's Communication with Black Audiences. A Sociological Analysis of Advertising Effectiveness via Symbolic Interactionism', in Journal of Sport and Social Capital, Vol 23, No 3: 266 - 86.
Rather a descriptive account here, with several elements:
(1) Some statistics to show the growth of the black consumer market in the USA, and some of the preferences for sporting goods in particular
(2) A quick defence of symbolic interactionism, not very well developed, and arguing that human beings need to communicate with each other through various shared symbols
(3) A good detailed analysis of some Nike adverts showing how well they are able to address some of the symbols shared with the black sporting audience, and noting how the main aim of the advert appears to be communication, with only a very soft sell
(4) Some general implications for sports policy makers in terms of how they should communicate if they want more black people to participate.
The account is somewhat uncritical, although it does raise the possibility that Nike adverts might actually be aimed at exploiting customers. No analysis is offered of how this might work in practice. Black sporting culture is also treated rather uncritically as if it existed as some spontaneous cultural creation of black people -- there is a reasonable argument to say that the good correspondence between the world of black sporting culture and the world of Nike adverts is that the latter have a strong influence on the former in the first place. Finally, none of the difficulties and problems of using commercial modes of address for marketing policy issues are discussed: policy makers can borrow from advertising only to some extent, but they do not wish to actually sell goods which people might not actually want?
What remains to be done then is a bit of cherry-picking:
Effective communication depends on getting right 'the elements, the channels or media, the content of the message, the icons and symbols used to convey the message, values portrayed in the message' (266). Advertising also contains important non-verbal cues as well, including visuals. Meaning is defined as reactions to these stimuli [not a very symbolic interactionist view here -- what happened to critical interpretation?]. Good adverts try to build bridges by using 'verbal and pictorial symbols with overtones of meaning that are not directly related to the product' (268), and the brand itself can be used to refer directly to the product. Nevertheless, television advertising in particular has run into difficulty from consumers who are willing to zap or scan -- hence the need to motivate viewers to watch, and to develop communication strategies.
Black spending power is increasing considerably in the USA, faster than the national average. The black consumer market also places much significance on sports, and sport seem to generate more personal involvement, for both black men and black women. Basketball in particular 'was more salient to and had a more symbolic meaning to the black culture than to whites' (270). Black people also watch more TV, and tend to prefer black-owned radio stations and magazines. They also seem to be 'more affected by advertising' (270). The most popular televised sports for black people are 'track-and-field, boxing, and basketball', and basketball is the most popular overall, when print media are included (270).
Communication effectiveness in advertisements seems to turn on 'core symbols... prescriptions... whether communication is problematic... [because of multiple meanings] ... code... conversation... and community' (271). This provides a link with symbolic interactionism [a rather slender one in fact], which in turn helps us to focus on important aspect of the self, including 'self-image, self-esteem and personal and social identity' (272). Advertisers should take these aspects into account, and researchers should too, when considering the connection between advertising and black audiences.
The Nike adverts chosen were ones referring to basketball. Meanings contained in the advertisements were analysed via five different commercials and 'random issues of black magazines' (273). Three 'independent African American researchers' did the coding, examining the 'premise of the message, the grammar/packaging/contextualisation of the message, and the overall style of presentation and delivery of the message as suggested by symbolic interactionism' (273). The intentions of the advertiser were examined as well as the 'speculative effects on black consumers as the receivers of the communication' (273). [Proper symbolic interactionist work would have gone to see how these meanings were actually negotiated among the consumers themselves?].
The commercials are then described, pages 273 - 9. [From what I can see, they seem to feature black people, including famous basketball players, in slices of life in the black community -- sitting in barber shops, hanging around, and laughing and joking and the like. The Nike logo seems to be the main way in which the brand is introduced. The print media contain inspiring scripts about personal achievement despite adversity, ending with the famous exhortation to just do it.]
None of the adverts offered hard sell product endorsement, but focused instead on the culture of the participants. The theme of each one was conveyed through 'human interaction, experience and emotion' (281) [all of it scripted?]. Consumers were invited to self reference and to be involved in the interaction. A series of ideas were depicted rather than a tight narrative, 'fostering a contagion effect of communication which fostered interaction among the viewers and readers' (281). The collective community of black consumers was effectively referred to via naturalistic representations. This developed emotional links to capture attention and prevent zapping and scanning. The intention was to let the product become culturally salient as well: 'The swoosh, therefore, may be an external stimulus that represents the total packaging of the Nike experience and evokes a positive feeling... within black consumers' (282). [I still think this is done as well and with more critical punch in Goldman and Papson]. The actual conversational patterns were designed to relate to typical experiences, and included 'slang, jive talking with their codes and with their jargon' (280). Black music was playing in the background, and other cultural activities alluded to.
Advertising effectiveness can be measured both in terms of economic returns, increases of sales and the like, or in more social terms, which is what has been attempted here. The analysis is admitted to be 'subjective' and permitting only a 'cursory evaluation of Nike's attempt/ability to communicate with black consumers' (282). Further, there is no guarantee that consumers will respond in a favourable manner, but other researchers are cited. Nevertheless the adverts do successfully bridge into the world of black consumer culture, allowing black consumers to 'relate, refer, establish, and maintain positive identities through the symbols used and the images created' (283). Nike has also attempted to hire more black workers, and invest in black youth and black communities. Even negative publicity seems to have increased the popularity of the company among black consumers.
Sports policy makers have used similar techniques, in basketball and baseball, in American football and in soccer -- black people have been given prominence in advertisements, for example. Advertising in this niche way may be effective in an American society that values different identities. Of course, 'care must be taken to convey messages that are not exploitative, but instead that promote the establishment of long-term positive relationships with consumers' (284) [this is exploitative!]. Certainly, cultural insensitivity should be avoided. Sports organisations should borrow these priorities, and in this respect, Nike seems to be leading the way.
back to key concepts