Ad Report Card

Trading Places

In Nike’s alternate sporting universe, Serena spikes, Marion vaults, and Agassi plays short.

Randy Johnson in Nike ad
The Unit stares down the pins

The spot: We’ve entered some sort of alternate sporting universe. Lance Armstrong, world’s greatest cyclist, is a boxer nicknamed “the Texas Tickler.” Andre Agassi, in this life a tennis champ, plays shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Baseball pitcher Randy Johnson has become a pro bowler. What can it all mean? There’s a three-word answer, and it’s fading in now: “Just Do It.” Cue swoosh logo. (To see the ad, click here.)

Shaquille O’Neal in a sumo loincloth—oh, the hours I’ve whiled away, happily contemplating that image.

Wait, that came out wrong. What I mean to say is that this ad brings to life one of my favorite bar-stool discussions: What if superstar athletes had taken up different sports? Posit: NBA guard Allen Iverson would revolutionize lacrosse; NFL wide-out Terrell Owens could dominate World Cup soccer; and don’t even start me ranting about Nomar Garciaparra on the squash court. (He’ll need a new gig, anyway, now that Andre’s stolen his job.)

It’s such time-honored sports-fan philosophizing, you’d think this ad would have been done before. And it was: In the old “Bo Knows” campaign, Nike envisioned Bo Jackson playing golf and tennis, driving racecars, and so on. The difference is that Bo Knows got played for laughs while this new campaign’s played for inspiration.

And actually, the detail and execution here are pretty inspiring. According to published accounts, the athletes in the ad actually performed many of the feats you see—they spent hours working with trainers to get things perfect. So that’s really Serena Williams spiking that volleyball, and that’s really Agassi bare-handing a bounding grounder.

Which answers part one of the bar-stool question. Physical skills do translate, to some extent. Agassi’s insane eye-hand coordination helped him snare that topspinned baseball. Pretty impressive. (Though his throwing form is bizarre—like an excited, hopping chimp.)

But the second, more philosophical part of the question has much more pertinence for Nike as a brand. Do true athletes have some innate drive—a mental toughness, an eye of the tiger—that would cause them to excel at any sport they might try? The real answer is probably not: Remember, as a baseball player, Michael Jordan whiffed. But if there were some special quality—the heart of a champion—whatever that thing is, that’s the Nike brand identity. That’s what they want you to feel when you see the swoosh. That’s what Nike is selling. A sense of athletic transcendence.

And that’s what makes the spot so fantastic. Without words (except for the voice-over from the play-by-play guys, who are just there to add to the realism), it expresses the fundamental essence of the brand: soulful sporting excellence. What makes it work is the economy of expression. The campaign is titled “What If?”—but Nike wisely omits these words from the spot. In fact, there’s no explanation given at all. A lesser marketing team would have spelled it all out for us in a voice-over: “What if Lance Armstrong had taken up boxing instead of cycling? What if Andre Agassi’s mom had given him a baseball glove, not a tennis racket?” Nike lets it stand on its own.

Compare this to the recent Adidas campaign in which female fighter Laila Ali is seen boxing against her own father, Muhammad. (To see the spot, click here, then click on the big box that says “Impossible.”) Adidas seeks nearly the same brand niche as Nike (innovative shoe technology, ultimate athletic performance) yet always seems one step behind. The “Ali vs. Ali” ad is, like the Nike ad, a carefully crafted piece of sci-fi. But it’s cluttered, first by a voice-over that doesn’t really add much—”Impossible isn’t a fact. It’s an opinion.” —and second by its slightly muddled message. Why is she fighting her father? He’s not the obstacle blocking the path to her dream, is he? Is she really going to slug him, Parkinson’s and all? Is the Greatest about to concuss his own daughter?

By contrast, the Nike spot is clear, simple, engrossing, and brilliant.

Grade: A. When it comes to non-product-specific, brand-enhancement campaigns, there is nobody who can do it like Nike just does it.