Ad Report Card: The Nike Offensive

Shortly after the now-infamous Nike “chain-saw” ad aired during Olympic broadcasts last week, I got a couple of e-mails from “Moneybox” readers. One recommended the spot as Ad Report Card fodder because “it’s the funniest and most memorable ad we’ve seen in quite some time.” The second e-mail, however, called the same spot “one of the worst ads I’ve ever seen. … I was outraged.” Before I had a chance to see it, the commercial was yanked by NBC, apparently because of viewer comments that ran closer to the views of the latter e-mail. I asked around a little more, and two (female) Slate colleagues told me they enjoyed the ad (“It rocked”), but one (male) colleague found it to be eye-rollingly “poor taste.” So what’s all the hubbub about? You can see for yourself, using the QuickTime plug-in to view the ad here by way of (The ad is also supposedly viewable using the Flash plug in on Nike’s Web site–click on the box in the lower left-hand corner, which will say “Hot and Tasty TV Spots” when your cursor hovers over it–but I wasn’t able to get it to work on my computer.)

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The Ad: A young blond woman is in the bathroom of her big old house in the middle of nowhere, washing up. Crickets bleat. She takes her shirt off. A cat meows. It’s quiet–too quiet. And sure enough! There, in the mirror: an evil intruder, in a hockey mask, weilding a chain saw! Scary orchestral music blares. The woman screams. And screams, and screams. She runs (in pants, sports bra, and sneakers) from the house and through the woods. Chain-saw man pursues. They tumble on through the trees, the camera cutting quickly from chain-saw man to the fleeing woman and back. Chain-saw man moans, and at length, he stops. He’s winded. He just can’t keep up. The woman darts off to safety, having left the panting villain behind. “Why sport?” asks the closing type. “You’ll live longer.” And of course the Nike swoosh materializes as the unathletic bogeyman limps back through the woods.

The Intent: The ad, which was made by a Portland, Ore., ad firm called Wieden & Kennedy, is pretty obviously a spoof of a horror flick. It’s one entry in a “Why sport?” campaign, which answers the question in various ways that are meant to be amusing. Presumably people who follow Olympic sports more closely than I do will recognize the blond woman as Suzy Favor Hamilton, a U.S. track athlete.

The Complaint: One line of criticism about the spot is that it’s trying to score laughs off the plight of a helpless, weak, screaming woman. Another is that it’s too scary for little kids who may well be watching the family-friendly Olympics.

I did not find the ad to be incredibly offensive. Nike did not exactly invent the damsel in distress. Slasher films invariably depict women as squealing victims, so it somehow seems a little off the mark to criticize a parody for the sins of the genre it’s poking fun at. After all, plenty of advertising depicts women as little more than aesthetically pleasing objects with a perfectly straight face, which seems, in the larger view of things, like a bigger problem. Still, I’ll go along with the idea that this one could have been handled better–all of Suzy Favor Hamilton’s screaming could have either been camped up or toned down, either of which would have made her seem less pathetic and provided a useful wink to the audience. Or perhaps her victory could have involved some sort athleticism that wasn’t just the act of running away. And I’ll concede that maybe it’s a little strong for small children, but it’s also not exactly The Exorcist.

The Grade: On the other hand, I didn’t find the ad to be incredibly effective. This is hard to judge, because I knew how it would turn out before I ever saw it, and obviously the whole ad turns on the surprise ending of the woman getting away. The spot was somewhat amusing and absolutely an attention-getter, but it was also too long at 60 seconds and not nearly as mesmerizing as some of Nike’s past commercials. I have a sense that whatever I say about this commercial will alienate roughly half the people who have seen it (which in itself is of course testimony to some degree of effectiveness: The ad has unquestionably gotten Nike a ton of attention). So I’ll give it a B and run screaming from the room.