NIKE COMES OUT TO PLAY PUBLIC-SPIRITED SPOTS ACCENT SHIFT AWAY FROM SELLING

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The newest Nike TV commercials don't feature Godzilla, Bugs Bunny or any crazed, shoe-sniffing referees. They do star Michael Jordan, but not as his usual basketball superhero self.

And while the Nike logo is flashed at the end, the two spots don't plug any products.

No, the latest creations from Nike's longtime agency, Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Ore., support the rollout of "Participate in the Lives of America's Youth," or PLAY, a $10 million effort promoting kids fitness.

Not the sort of aggressive advertising one would expect from an athletic footwear company that saw its stock pingpong between $80 and $43 a share in the past year while enduring a sharp decline in basketball shoe sales and watching its superstar endorser retreat from the limelight.

But the PLAY campaign underscores the ubiquity of Nike, a name that has become virtually synonymous with the category it continues to dominate. That position allows Nike to execute ads that entertain, preach and do anything else but sell product.

"Nike has reached such a comfortable and powerful position that they don't have to use their advertising to define their products, and that's a position an agency wants to be in. That's when they do their best work," said Richard Silverstein, co-chairman and co-creative director at Goodby, Berlin and Silverstein, San Francisco.

Not quite public service announcements and not at all typical ads, the 60-second PLAY spots broke last week during CBS' coverage of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship tournament and will run in prime time and late night on cable and broadcast networks through June.

Both spots feature Mr. Jordan and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Titled "What If ... There Were No Sports," the commercials attempt to imagine such a world and urge people to support kids athletics and fitness.

For its part, Nike will back a variety of youth programs, some in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, including refurbishing playgrounds in 10 U.S. cities.

"This may be the most important communication we've ever undertaken at Nike," said Scott Bedbury, director of advertising. "And like a lot of companies, it comes at a time when we can least afford it financially. But for every Nike employee, there is a calling to do this."

The PLAY spots are the good-for-you meat sandwiched between Nike's latest razzle-dazzle ad efforts: a Busby Berkeley-ish musical about baseball that launched earlier this month, and a high-concept execution slated for early April that employs Nike's stable of basketball players. One ad believed to be under consideration involves the athletes getting haircuts at a hip, star-studded barbershop.

Like "The Charles Barkley Show" and Dennis Hopper campaigns that preceded them, the new Nike efforts blur the line between advertising and entertainment.

In the case of the baseball spot, it isn't even evident that what's on the TV screen is a commercial.

"It's innovative, it cuts through the clutter, yet from a traditional advertising point of view, it misses all the bases. But it works for them," said John Horan, editor of Sporting Goods Intelligence.

Some disagree, and-surprisingly-some of the detractors work for Nike.

"Our 1993 advertising wasn't particularly sharp," said Ron Parham, Nike's director of investor relations, pointing to such executions as the second Jordan-Bugs Bunny spot, in which both play basketball on the planet Mars. "For the most part, our advertising reflected a bit of uncertainty about the direction of the company at the time. But we have a clearer picture of where we're going, and you'll see a return of the Nike edge."

Many believe the commercials featuring Mr. Hopper were a return to form, with the right balance of edge, entertainment and product support.

"It was a bold swing for Nike," said Donny Deutsch, creative director of the New York agency that bears his name.

Yet, he believes that for the most part, Nike's recent advertising "has been very inconsistent. They've lost the guts, the message of pure athleticism that is Nike.

"They've replaced their advertising with entertainment," Mr. Deutsch said. "They take a sliver of pop culture, like talk shows or Godzilla, put in the Nike swoosh, and make it hip. If they move more and more in that direction, it will be interesting to see if that hurts them."

Other agency creatives also prefer the simplicity of "Bo knows" or "Revolution." But some believe that as long as Nike maintains its dominant position, the marketer should continue to set creative standards for the industry.

"We get so critical of advertising when we're willing to excuse the dreck that's on Sunday nights," Mr. Silverstein said. "But Nike is unique-they have their own language, and that's what every agency strives to achieve for their client."

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