A version of this piece originally appeared in the Guardian on July 5, 2010. Read more of the Guardian’s World Cup coverage at guardian.co.uk/worldcup. Also in Slate, Seth Stevenson called Nike’s “Write the Future” ad epic, witty, and wonderful.
It must have seemed such a brilliant idea at the time. Round up the superstars, put them in a bit of cinema courtesy of Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and score a viral coup against their age-old rival—and official World Cup sponsor—Adidas.
When it first hit the tube-waves, Nike’s “Write the Future” commercial was promptly hailed as a masterpiece and a stroke of advertising genius. Within the first week of its release, the three-minute spot broke previous viral records with an unprecedented 7.8 million views, and it seemed Nike had perfected the art of ambush marketing. Aside from being visually compelling, the ad was successful because it provided an aspirational narrative every spectator could relate to—the idea that the only thing separating us bean-eating plebs from heroism and fame are those rare moments where an individual wills themselves into history.
But what a difference three weeks makes. With the semifinals afoot and millions of embittered fans looking for someone to blame, a curious backlash has begun and the verdict is in: Nike’s Write the Future campaign is officially cursed.
Not only have all the superstars featured in the three-minute spot been shamefully ejected from the tournament, but inopportunely cast Roger Federer also suffered a confounding loss at Wimbledon that many are accrediting to the curse.
Worse yet, for Nike stockholders at least, Adidas has rallied from behind to claim the largest share of World Cup-associated buzz. It’s become such a intriguing and publicized debacle that Write the Future is likely to go down as the most shocking reversal of advertising fortunes since Pepsi set Michael Jackson’s hair on fire.
But is it a curse for the ages? Perhaps not. Nike sponsors the Netherlands, so as long as they win the cup it will be difficult to prove that there exists a supernatural connection between the swoosh and abysmal failure.
What the campaign is more indicative of is that American advertisers still don’t fully understand the nature of the World Cup. The agency that produced the spot, Oregon-based Wieden + Kennedy, has found plenty of success in hyping up the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo, but the World Cup is a far different brand of beast than your typical bout of idol worship.
If this year’s tournament has proved anything, it’s that the efforts of the most publicized players are futile when they come up against a team that can play with a bit of cohesion. By producing an advert that focused solely on the actions of a few celebs, Nike tempted fate and is being accordingly punished.
But even more hazardous was in how Nike tested the attention spans and emotional commitment of its audience. Because Write the Future was so well-executed, and because it became so popular so quickly, it effectively functioned as an inspiring prelude to the kickoff. And when that decisive moment came for Rooney (or Ronaldo, Ribéry, Cannavaro, et al) and they crumpled exactly as they had done in Nike’s vision, the entire meaning of the ad shifted away from “just do it” and toward a prognostication of doom.
Rather than a storybook ending for any one of Nike’s heroes, what we have here is a case study of what happens when hype goes terribly awry. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to capitalize on star power during the World Cup, proving that Adidas was correct to pick Snoop Dogg and Han Solo for spokesmen, as they have absolutely no chance of mucking it up and disappointing prospective cleat consumers.