Good Thing Brett Favre Isn't a Nike Endorser

Once-Great Marketer Wasting Ads on Celebrity Rehab

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Brian Sheehan
Brian Sheehan
I teach advertising to college students. One thing that can be counted on with complete surety is that any conversation about the brands that set the standard for great advertising will end up as a discussion of just two brands: Apple and Nike. As I like to tell my students, these brands have reached marketing nirvana. All they need to do is splash their distinctive logos across the screen, or any handy building, and people's minds are flooded with positive emotions and images. In Apple's case, it is images of innovation, creativity and style. In Nike's case, it is images of athleticism, peak performance and authenticity.

These brands have reached their rarefied positions by consistently, almost invariably, presenting advertising messages that hit the right note with consumers, not just on a regular basis, but over and over, across decades. Apple's game-changing "1984" rocked the Super Bowl more than 25 years ago. Nike's seminal "It's the Shoes" ad featuring Spike Lee and a young Michael Jordan turned the Air Jordan into cultural currency more than 20 years ago. Since then, every time we have seen an ad, any ad, from these two advertising paragons, it has almost always been something special. What has made them so special is that they have grabbed our emotions. They have inspired us, awed us, or just made us laugh. Cumulatively, their advertising have made us adore their brands.

Until now.

One of these brands has started to lose touch with the deepest feelings of its audience in some extremely high-profile commercials.

Nike, for the second time in less than a year, has completely missed the mark to the point of angering some of its most ardent supporters. The problem: Nike has stopped using its incredible stable of athletes to inspire people. Instead, it has started the cynical practice of trying to resuscitate fallen athletes' images when they have been tarnished. Nike has done this in a big, high-profile manner. Its less-than-inspirational goal is thinly transparent: repackage these athletes fast to avoid losing the millions already poured into their images.

Perhaps even more cynically, Nike sees its athletes' poor behavior as a marketing opportunity to take advantage of a moral relativism that Nike clearly perceives (and is trying to promote) to turn notoriety into positive salience. Unfortunately for Nike, the strategy has been to embrace the bad -- and in some cases shocking -- behavior of some the custodians of their brand.

Exhibit A: Tiger Woods and his dead dad. Nike's attempt to present Tiger's battle with his inner demons as some sort of heroic athletic challenge inspired by the voice of Tiger's late father, Earl, may be the absolute nadir of 21st-century advertising (actually, we could throw the 20th century in as well). To enumerate the reasons why this approach is in poor taste is unnecessary. Suffice it to say, I have not met a person yet, sports fan or not, who did not find this approach manipulative, disgusting or just plain creepy.

Exhibit B: LeBron James trying to prove he is not an arrogant jerk -- by being an even more arrogant jerk. Nike's latest foray into image salvation is the LeBron "What Should I Do?" video. Here again we see Nike embracing a perceived business opportunity over the feelings of its average consumers -- and common sense. LeBron clearly made a mistake, and ticked off a lot of sports fans, when he turned his announcement of moving to Miami into a media circus. In a situation like this, the best strategy is to let it blow over with time. Unlike Tiger, LeBron did not do anything reprehensible. It's no big deal. Yet, Nike saw this as an opportunity to make it a big deal and to idolize LeBron for his overblown ego. Nike's newest ad celebrates LeBron's selfishness to the point of apotheosis. This ad too has gone over with the common man like the Hinderburg.

In these cases, Nike has gone from packager of inspiration to purveyor of the sordid reality show. One can only be glad that Brett Favre is not a Nike athlete. Although it would be interesting to see how Nike, or its team at Wieden, would turn "sexting" into a heroic effort to maintain on-field focus, a challenge that no doubt would show us what a great competitor Favre is (and somehow by definition, a great man). Shouldn't we celebrate his ability to work through this hardship?

This issue goes far beyond embracing controversy to put the Nike brand in the middle of relevant sports discussions. Charles Barkley's "I Am Not a Role Model" ad, for example, raised an important question: Shouldn't kids' parents be more concerned about the role they set for their children than some basketball player? Importantly, although Barkley had a bad-boy image, he had not done anything to be ashamed of. His image did not need repair. It also helped that he was commonly known to be a fun-loving, nice guy under his gruff exterior.

Deep down, Nike has shown itself to be seriously out of touch in these recent campaigns. There is an undercurrent in both campaigns that somehow what the athlete is going through is slightly unfair (despite the fact that the problems are of their own making) and that we should cheer their competitive spirit to overcome the wasteland that their egos have created.

The saddest outcome for me, of course, will be when my class discussions about consistently great brands start becoming a discussion of only one brand: Apple. How boring that will be.

Brian Sheehan spent 25 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, the last nine years as chairman-CEO of Team One Advertising in Los Angeles. In 2008, he became associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University.
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