Ad Report Card

Keep Soccer Beautiful!

Nike’s new ads cleverly slam Adidas.

The Spot: A burly, bearded man with an accent sits at a video-editing console. He cues up some old footage of a little kid playing soccer. Then he intercuts this with modern-day scenes of the kid all grown up, still playing soccer. Kid and man both execute some astonishing moves, bewildering their opponents and scoring goals at will. “So my advice to you,” says the bearded man, “is never grow up, my friends.” As the spot ends, we see the words “Joga Bonito” and a Nike swoosh. (Click here and mouse over the right-hand side of the screen to see the ad, called “Ronaldinho—Joy.”)

When Brazil and Germany faced off in the 2002 World Cup final, it was not simply an important soccer match. It was an epic clash of logos. The German national team sported the three-stripe mark of Adidas, while the Brazilians were clad in the Nike swoosh. When Brazil won 2-0, their victory was celebrated just as fervently in Beaverton, Ore.—home to Nike world headquarters—as it was in São Paulo and Rio.

The 2006 World Cup kicks off on June 9, and both brands are already girding themselves for another battle. The German-based Adidas will have home-turf advantage (the World Cup final will be held in Berlin) and has been locking up television sponsorships. Nike has long led Adidas in overall market share (both in the United States and worldwide), but soccer is a holdout category in which Adidas maintains an edge. Nike hopes this “Joga Bonito” campaign will put an end to that.

I’m excited to see Nike turning its full attention to soccer. In the 1990s, a Nike marketing executive once explained to me, the company took a halfhearted approach to the sport. Then, during the 2002 World Cup, it made its first concerted attack on the Adidas hegemony. Still, I felt the Nike soccer ads that year were mediocre, and even a bit confusing: They featured soccer matches set, for no evident reason, within the bowels of a giant ocean tanker. The spots were filmed on grim, industrial sets. The look was murky, the marketing message murkier.

This time, the message is front and center, and the sunshine bright: “Joga Bonito.” The phrase is Portuguese for “play beautiful,” and it’s a double-edged dig at Adidas. It reminds us 1) that the world champion Brazilians are a Nike squad, and 2) that Brazil plays a creative, dazzling style of soccer that makes the more conservative, bruising teams (ahem, Germany) seem passionless by comparison.

My favorite spot in the new campaign is the one featuring recent footage of Brazilian star Ronaldinho juxtaposed with scenes of Ronaldinho as a kid. The grown-up Ronaldinho pulls off one move—rolling his foot around the ball in midair and then darting off in a new direction—that’s so breathtaking I’ve been watching the clip over and over. The soundtrack, all woodwinds and hand claps, perfectly embodies the spot’s title: “Joy.” And the dusted-off scenes of the child Ronaldinho are great fun (even though the ploy is a recycled one: A previous Nike ad showed a teeny Tiger Woods playing the British Open through the magic of video effects).

I do have one concern about the “Joga Bonito” campaign: Is it an effective way to sell soccer in the States? These ads will air all over the globe and will no doubt be a hit wherever they play … except, perhaps, here in America. First of all, the spots feature French soccer legend Eric Cantona (who is totally unknown to U.S. viewers—though so is Ronaldinho, to some extent) as their host, dressing all Euro-like and speaking with a heavy French accent. What’s more, none of the players featured so far (Ronaldinho, England’s Wayne Rooney, France’s Thierry Henry) are American—though this is mostly because America has no superstars. But most important, the lighthearted “Joga Bonito” ethos seems to run contrary to Nike’s usual message: Go for broke; take no prisoners; sweat and tears; Just Do It.

Nike’s “Awake” ad

Take, for instance, the recent Nike ad titled “Awake” —my favorite ad of the year so far. It has all the hallmarks of a great Nike spot: superstar athletes (Tom Brady, Alex Rodriguez), a killer song (AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”), and some brilliant editing (watch how the cuts accelerate as the drumbeat kicks into overdrive). But there’s also an overarching message here that’s smack in the middle of Nike’s wheelhouse. The ad suggests that success takes hard work, dedication, and waking up early to punch the clock. It’s not about “joy” and “playing beautiful”—it’s about Brady studying game film before dawn, and A-Rod doing sit-ups in the gym. That’s the core of Nike’s brand.

Perhaps soccer is a sport with a wholly different mood, requiring a wholly different approach. But I wonder if Nike might have been better off with a set of U.S.-specific ads, showing American soccer players giving their all and muddying their uniforms. Joga Feio? (That’s Portuguese for “play ugly”—I think.)

Grade: A-. Hugely entertaining spots—so much so that I’ll forgive any branding missteps. By the way, alongside this campaign (and in partnership with Google), Nike is launching, which is a sort of MySpace for soccer enthusiasts. Given all the media attention MySpace has received lately, anointing it the future of all human interfacing, I predict that, very soon, no major ad campaign will be without an accompanying “interactive community.” Soon after that, we’ll get deathly bored with interactive communities and move on to something else.