Lucas, S (2000) ‘Nike’s Commercial Solution: Girls, Sneakers, and Salvation’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 35/2: 149—164

Nike attempted to launch a campaign targeting women’s market and addressing girl’s participation, using ‘” ads with a conscience” or “cause– related marketing”’ (149). Nike sells itself as helping to empower girls to participate in sport. However, the message is ambiguous and contradictory, as seen in the analysis of three Nike advertisements.

There has been much discussion already of the cultural significance of Nike and what’s the logo stands for. ‘For some, the swoosh symbolizes the Nike spirit of “just do it”; for others it symbolizes unfair labour practices and oppressed workers. The swoosh also stands for, among other things, capitalism, celebrity… hegemonic masculinity, power and elite athletes” (150).

Nike was a slow entrant to the women’s market, with Reebok first to see an opportunity from the new craze for aerobics. The growth of Reebok persuaded Nike to enter the market to restore market share. Title IX [equal opps] legislation further increased female participation, and eventually, women bought more athletic shoes than men. Initially, the company did not know how to advertise to women. The initial adverts featured aggressive competitive athletes, but this did not appeal to non competitive females. Eventually, female employees devised an ad that featured various dialogues on women’s experience, including non athletic themes about gender identity, and it was successful. They then tried a segmented approach, focusing on, say, walkers rather than runners, and emphasizing the fun and pleasure of participation: ‘Shopping for Nike products might also bring similar pleasures to women (and Nike)’ (152). Overall, advertising to women proved successful in restoring growth. The company says that this follows from their deeper understanding of the cultural significance of sport and women. This deeper understanding can be seen by looking at three specific commercials.The scripts are provided for each.

‘If You Let Me Play’ shows young girls asking to play various sports and mentioning the claimed benefits from doing so – health benefits and cultural independence from men. However, there are contradictions in that the girls involved seem to need to ask permission from men to play sport. The solemn tone does reflect some of the consequences of not playing sports such as low self esteem, but this presents the girls as victims. One major form of male ideological control is precisely insisting that women need permission, especially to manage their own bodies. The actual brand name does not appear in the ad, and the slogan and swoosh appear only briefly. This helps to disguise the ad almost as a public service announcement, fitting with Hall’s notion of hegemony. The ad shows that with cause-related marketing, corporations very often ‘do not want to compromise the purity of the message by including the corporate or product name’ (155). This is because consumers are attracted to causes even more than to Brands (155).

‘There is a Girl Being Born in America’ features a star female athlete who talks over shots of girls doing traditional female things and girls playing sport. The girls range in age and ethnicity. Strong contrasts are drawn throughout between the activities, which polarises athleticism and femininity. No girls are shown participating in both types of activity (except the star voice-over), implying that they must choose, and that ‘only a few extraordinary women can exist at the juncture of athleticism and femininity’ (156). The idea is that the people surrounding the girl will determine whether or not she gets to play sport. [A banality in research, surely?] The people who do choose are not identified, but perhaps it is Nike who will choose? Certainly, Nike did offer financial support for women’s sport. It is also assumed that sport is simply available to boys but that girls need positive choices made for them. There is also a notion that different races have different fates, especially that basketball is suitable for black girls, but not other sports. White girls are also photographed more frequently in schools.

‘The Fun Police’ features several basketball players who are out to promote fun in sport. One of the ads involves girls who are playing outdoor basketball but not having fun. The fun police turn up to show them how to enjoy themselves. Again this involves controlling and commenting on women athletes [surely only as parody?]. The fun police insist that the girls give each other fun nicknames, and ‘learn to trash talk… [deploying]… bravado and [a] confrontational style of play’ (160). Girls have to learn to slam dunk, picking up on a common criticism of women’s basketball as unexciting. This is a male model of sport, reinforced by the background theme song –‘”that ain’t the way to have fun, son”’ (160). The whole suggestion is that basketball is a man’s world, that men are the ‘real and regional professional athletes’ (160), and that men claim the right to police the women’s game. Nike has sponsored women’s basketball, but they seem to be setting the terms for girls to participate. Again, there is a racial undertone, since the only girl who already knows how to talk trash is a black girl. ‘This black girl did not need help from the Fun Police because she is presumed to be a natural athlete’ (161). The Fun Police are stopping girls from playing basketball in their own way. Who called them to intervene?

The ads want girls to remember the message of participation and having fun, but also to remember the messenger—Nike. Overall, there is a message that participation is acceptable but only within constraints. Girls need to be helped towards living healthy lives, and companies like Nike can offer solutions to social problems. Entrance into sport also involves disempowerment and lack of agency. The ads are better seen as a solution to the problems attached to Nike and its attempt to get into the commercial women’s market.

What the consumers make of it is unknown, and audience research is needed. [Without it, we have merely another critic's reading, skilled, politicised, and progbably quite unusual]. It would also be useful to speak to the people who produce the commercials. Clearly, they have a commercial agenda, but what else are they intending?

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