Does ‘Impossible is Nothing’ still work for Adidas in 2021?
Adidas has lately been strafing us all with a fresh barrage of celebrity-focused biographical videos/ads featuring its long-running “Impossible is Nothing” tagline, along with an #ImpossibleIsNothing Instagram campaign.
The mix of subjects for the new documentary-style spots, which started rolling out in mid-April, is decidedly global and inclusive—e.g., Russian figure skater Alexandra Trusova, Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah, Indian track-and-field gold medalist Hima Das, South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi, Brazilian pro volleyballer Tifanny Abreu and American NBA star Damian Lillard. (Scroll down to watch a selection of them.) The videos are, in some cases, presented with market-specific, native-language voice-overs (with available English subtitles).
In all cases the subjects are incredibly accomplished, sometimes in history-making ways (e.g., Trusova was the first woman to land three quads, Kolisi was South Africa’s first Black rugby captain, Abreu was the first trans woman to play on Brazil’s professional women’s volleyball league). And while they’re mostly traditional pro athletes, there are a few exceptions, including American video gamer/streamer Ninja (who Adidas says is proof that “a gamer can be an athlete”) and American pop star Beyoncé (whose inclusion Adidas doesn’t attempt to similarly justify—but hey, her stage performances are arguably a display of elite athleticism, so).
Over the past few weeks, Adidas has released more than a dozen of these minute-long biographical videos online—and the Beyoncé installment got a 30-second TV commercial cut that aired during the Oscars.
Meanwhile, over on Instagram, Adidas has gotten a bunch of athlete-celebrities to post, on their personal accounts, cropped close-up photographs of their eyes along with typeset captions (obviously ghost-written), plus the Adidas logo and the “Impossible is Nothing” tagline. For instance, Scottish rugby player Finn Russell’s eyes are captioned, “Where some see what’s been done, I see the possibilities of what’s never been imagined.”
It’s worth noting that this iteration of “Impossible Is Nothing” is conveniently pandemic-ready from a production standpoint—in that the various elements of the current campaign were clearly assembled with little or no effort from the endorsing celebrities. Russell, for instance, surely didn’t have to sit for a photo shoot (his eyes were just sliced out of an existing headshot) for his Instagram ad, and the videos/commercials have been largely assembled from archival/stock footage. Even the voice-over copy feels vaguely boilerplate. Here, for instance, is the script for Beyoncé’s spot:
When she was finding her voice, she didn’t see limits. She saw possibilities. To be more than a singer. More than a dancer. More than an icon. She saw that she could be an inspiration to all people. So that she and they and we could see possibilities, too.
The big question is: Do we really still accept this level of over-the-top celebrity hagiography circa 2021?
More than a decade and a half ago, Ad Age called the first wave of “Impossible is Nothing" ads “magnificent.” Timed to the 2004 Olympics, a centerpiece of the campaign was a print ad featuring a photo of Muhammad Ali superimposed with this text:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
That manifesto was written by Aimee Lehto (now Aimee Lehto Schewe), then a copywriter at TBWA\Chiat\Day, in support of the “Impossible is Nothing” tagline written by her creative-director colleague Boyd Coyner. But the words are so convincingly Ali-esque that they’ve been endlessly misattributed to Muhammad Ali himself—especially posthumously.
The early Ali era of “Impossible is Nothing” was, of course, the perfect match of copywriting and celebrity subject. It arguably took a great as great as Ali—the greatest—to indirectly bestow the requisite aura on the words. To convince us that the Yoda-esque inversion of a cliché (nothing is impossible) somehow made it newly profound.
Since that time, though, quasi-oracular copywriting that fancies up self-help pablum has become commonplace in advertising. There is no shortage of brands with pseudo-mystical pretensions to “inspire”—and unfortunately there’s a not-so-fine line between Ali-esque poetry (and wit and wordplay) and two-bit Tony Robbins-isms.
Yet, here we are in 2021, and Adidas would have us believe that Beyoncé planned all along to be “more than an icon,” and that Finn Russell is some sort of Steve Jobs-level visionary.
Even as it treats them, and all its other supposed demigods, like interchangeable cogs in a global marketing machine.