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I can't quite put my finger on it, but something's a little bit off at Nike.

Not a whole lot off, just a little bit off. But that's all it takes for the whole company to be out of sync. Just like Levi Strauss & Co.

Nike's new ad campaign is a step in the wrong direction. It has always sounded phony to me when the voice-over or the actors or even the supers mouth the same words as the tagline, which in Nike's case is "I can."

Maybe consumers are getting tired of Nike and other marketers (the "Toyota. Everyday" theme comes to mind) that insist on preaching to us. Tiger Woods' repetitive proselytizing about how he wants to "do more" (with the help of American Express Financial Services) is especially grating.

Advertising practitioners seem to have divided into two camps: The really stupid camp (Miller Lite, ABC) and the moralistic camp (see above).

The really stupid camp knows no bounds but moralistic ads have a built-in limitation-people's confidence in who's doing the moralizing. Even creative people wouldn't be dumb enough to solicit politicians to deliver sermons about the greater good that an advertiser's product or service delivers. Of course, Bob Dole's work for Visa and other marketers is the exception

I have a feeling that Nike's reliance on professional athletes to represent its sneakers is the cause of some of its troubles. The bloom is off the rose for pro sports: We'll listen to what Michael Jordan wants us to do, but few others.

So Nike's thinking most likely was it had to build its case around everyday athletes rather than the kind that choke coaches, or take drugs, or pout if they don't get the ball. "Just do it" was seen as too institutional as was the mighty swoosh sign.

The swoosh icon has been replaced by a lower-case script Nike to make the company appear to be more approachable and less monolithic.

In some ways, Nike has the same problem as Microsoft. Talk about monolithic, Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" ads give the strong impression that you can get there only if you use Microsoft products. Since that's also the basis for the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, I look for the software house that Bill Gates built to also soften and humanize its advertising message.

Nike used-and Microsoft still uses-second-person appeals. Now Nike has switched to first person, and Microsoft will surely follow (especially since they use the same ad agency). "I can go anywhere I want to go" might be more appropriate. That way a big powerful company isn't making the proposition. Empowerment has been transferred from the company to the individual.

By advocating that jocks of all ages get out there and "Just do it," Nike had to take the blame for people mashing their faces into fences and in all manner of other ways destroying their bodies. Now this sort of mayhem is not their fault anymore. Nike can't be responsible for what I can do to test the limits of endurance.

So now Nike is projecting a less domineering version of itself even if it runs contrary to its corporate culture.

The company's iconoclastic, in-your-face advertising was perfect for the times, but sometimes times change.

It's not Nike that's changed; and maybe not even many consumers. It's the way it's slash-'em-bash-'em advertising has unleashed critics to examine everything Nike does, from the conditions of its production facilities in Asia to its cozy relationships with college coaches.

The real trouble, however, starts when a company's communications is no longer true to itself. Nike's new ad campaign starts the company down that path, and from there its easy to get totally lost. Ask McD and Kodak.

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