Ad Report Card: Battle of the Shoe Ads

Few companies have a better track record for attention-getting advertising than Nike. Its shoe-selling rivals, such as Reebok, have been far less impressive, often running campaigns that either seem imitative or just forgettable. Earlier this year Reebok made a new run at ad respectability—dumping the idiotic strategy it had tied to its sponsorship of Survivor—and launched a fresh campaign. More recently, Nike has attracted yet another round of attention with its latest, basketball-themed commercial gambit. So which company holds shoe ad superiority? To see a Reebok spot, go here; for the 60-second Nike ad, a shorter cut of the same spot, and an even more recent expanded version, go here and look under the “videos” heading.

The Ads: As it happens, neither commercial has any kind of narrative, so both are a little tricky to describe in any meaningful way. The Reebok spot is basically a fast-paced montage, set to a robust rendition of the “William Tell Overture.” The theme is “Defy Convention,” and the imagery is a quick-cut series of scenes meant to illustrate some version of that idea: a laughing punk rocker, a sexily dressed office worker Xeroxing her backside, a businessman getting a pie in the face, and so on. We just get glimpses, really, punctuated by text inserts of things we ought to “Defy.” Such as: “Physics.” (A kid leaps over a moving car.) “Cages.” (Dogs are set free.) “Electricity.” (A guy is sprung from the electric chair.) “Cupid.” (Someone licks his TV.) “Tradition.” (Venus Williams in a victorious moment.) And my personal favorite, “Whatever.” (Honestly, if “Defy Whatever” isn’t the perfect slogan for our time, I can’t imagine what is.) Anyway, all of this really happens too fast to take in, and I can only give this blow-by-blow after watching the ad many times. The climax, of course, is “Defy Convention: Reebok.”

The Nike spot is even harder to do justice in words. Basically, it’s a series of guys doing basketball tricks. (“Freestyle,” as the ad has it.) But the tricks, the sounds the basketball makes, the movement of the ball from individual to individual and shot to shot, is meticulously and hypnotically choreographed. It gathers steam gradually and sort of sneaks its way into being a music video, bounces serving as backbeats and sneaker squeaks working like scratches. (The latest, two-and-a-half minute expanded version of this, played on MTV, inspired some confusion as to whether the network would present it as a piece of entertainment or a piece of advertising. A Nike spokesman told the New York Times that the company saw this version as being “more in keeping with a video” but conceded that “it’s MTV’s prerogative to view this as an ad, and we’re fine with that.”)

Who Wins? That Reebok spot is certainly the most infectious and interesting marketing the company has done in recent memory. It’s high energy, it’s weird, it’s infectious, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Nike wins anyway. The freestyle spot is the sort of ad you want to see repeatedly, to catch the way those shoe squeaks (which seem random at first) actually fall in a careful pattern on the way to becoming full-fledged musical samples. Nike is also fairly careful in keeping the appearance of its swoosh logo to a minimum to keep the viewer from being distracted by anything approaching a hard sell. So I’d give the Reebok spot an A-minus, but Nike a full-fledged A—and thus the contest.

A sort of footnote (as it were) to all of this: I feel compelled to mention that while I’ve often enjoyed Nike ads over the years, I’m not an actual Nike partisan. I don’t think I’ve owned a pair of that firm’s shoes, nor Reebok’s, since childhood. (The only brand of sneaker I’ve bought in the last 10 or 15 years is Converse—which of course has fallen on much harder times than Nike or Reebok these days.) And as much as I like both of these spots, neither one brings me any closer to becoming an actual customer. I guess even the best ads can’t do everything.