Nike's 'So Beautiful' everything hoped for

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AGENCY: Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.
RATING: Three and one half stars

The headline, in Newsweek, read "Shock Treatment." What followed was a story about advertisers so desperate to break through the clutter that they assault the viewer with extremely provocative, incendiary or lewd images.

And it's true. Many a jerk with a small media budget and an even smaller sense of respect for himself and others will use raunchy sex jokes, violence and other disturbing imagery just to get noticed.

Sort of in the way walking up to a stranger and kneeing him in the groin gets you noticed.

So, yes, as these trend stories go, Newsweek's was at least observant enough to identify the trend. It's a megatrend, actually--more's the pity. The problem is, the ad cited to make the case had no business in this story.

The spot is from Nike and Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and the images in it are, indeed, challenging. Here a surfer's thigh scarred by a shark attack. There a cauliflower ear. There the pinky of football player Ronnie Lott, minus the amputated tip.

The pictures aren't exactly grotesque, but to see them is to wince. A marathoner's tortured feet. Picabo Street's surgery-scarred knee. A rodeo cowboy who turns up his eye patch to reveal where he had been kicked, lacerated and blinded. Of course we recoil. Humans don't do well in the face of deformity.

All of this gritty-nigh-unto-grisly, black-and-white footage is shown atop the strains of the raspy Joe Cocker in his rendition of "You Are So Beautiful," which at first you think is meant as some sort of irony. Advertising, after all, is full of ironists (of varying proficiency) and you seldom go wrong looking for some wry juxtaposition of lyrics and action.

But here there is no irony intended. Cocker's song isn't some cheap gag; it's a genuinely felt paean to athletic grit.

Newsweek says this "stokes the debate over the lengths marketers must go to slice through the clutter." Does it? If it does, it's the exception that proves the rule. Because this is no way shockvertising. What it is, on the other hand, is yet another pure statement of Nike brand meaning--one that just happens to invoke images that are difficult to look at.

Nike, in its evolution from sports-shoe maker to sports-apparel giant to fashion company, has of late strayed from the "Just do it" theme that fueled its remarkable growth in the 1990s. This ad serves as a reminder, internally and externally, just how the company did it--by making itself synonymous with the beauty, the passion, the drama, the redemption, the sanctity of sport.

"You Are So Beautiful" is, in fact, the finest iteration of the Nike ethic in years.

And none too soon. After the hubris and excess of the so-called Alpha Project, Nike needed to re-acquire some of the psycho-emotional bonafides it has ceded to Adidas, Gatorade and others who watched the company back away from its brand essence and rushed to fill the vacuum.

By the time the final image appears--NHL vet Theo Fleury's jack-o'-lantern grin--it is impossible not to understand. Sure, the guy's front tooth is missing, and it's not a pretty sight. But if devotion to sport means anything to you at all, that smile is just so beautiful. Newsweek, can't you see?

Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc. ;

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