Alpha's buzz fizzles in curious Nike ads

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AGENCY: Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco

AD REVIEW RATING:Two and a half stars

The nike marketing formula:

a) Begin with widget whose cost is X. b) Engineer high-quality widget, at 1.5X cost. c) Saturate media with extremely hip advertising populated with sports heroes at additional cost per widget of 1.5X. d) Sell Nike widget to suckers at retail price of 12X.

e) Rule world.

Good formula. Notwithstanding recent symptoms of too-damn-bigness, Nike has ridden it to unimaginable heights. Only Marlboro has so miraculously exploited the power of advertising--the power not of conveying the brand benefit but of substantially being the brand benefit.

So now Nike is pushing the formula to still greater levels of audacity, or hubris. Enter the Alpha Project, the attempt to engineer even higher-tech widgets, supported by even glitzier advertising, for sale at even greater markups.

Mountain biking shoe: $210.

T-shirt: $35.

Volleyballer's emery board: $19.

OK, that last one up is made up--but the others are real, and also real state-of-the-art. The Cairn's biking shoe, for instance, is extraordinarily light and rigid, maximizing energy transfer from foot to pedal. The question is, when there are perfectly acceptable $50 biking shoes available, how many people, in a very tiny category, will pay a $160 premium for state-of-the-artness?

Answer: That's where the advertising comes in.

A gigantically ambitious, ostensibly product-focused TV campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, has unveiled Alpha buzz with digital bombast and bizarro imagery. But the TV is overproduced and underilluminating--leaving it to the straightforward, but obviously subsidiary, print campaign to close the sale.

The TV spots center on a strange, lower Manhattan curiosity shop filled with all manner of magical oddities. Each spot uses a single curio to introduce a single Alpha product.

The Gary Payton-model basketball shoe is featured when Payton himself samples an odd compound that unleashes tiny elves, who hoist him all around the shop until they are crushed into green goo. How curious! So he buys the sneakers instead.

The Cairn's biking shoes show up in a spot about a jerky biker decapitated by a tree limb. The disembodied head is one of the shop's curiousest curiosities. (Parents: This will scare your toddlers.) The Clima-Fit Lite jacket is worn by a gorgeous runner braving a freak San Francisco snowstorm--action, it turns out, curiously occurring in a souvenir snow globe.

The first problem is that the supposedly irresistible bizarreness isn't all that irresistible. It's lots of curious effects to not much effect, certainly not the effect of bathing the merchandise in ultrahipness. Hell, these spots don't bathe the products much in light.

What advantages the windbreaker and sneaker confer to the user--much less to the state of the art--are left entirely unmentioned. Only the grotesque disembodied-head spot explains a product benefit (the shoes still grip the pedals).

That's ironic, because it doesn't matter how many pairs of $210 biking shoes Nike sells. For this campaign to succeed, Alpha must be so synonymous with technological superiority that--a la Rolex--technological superiority is transformed into style and 10 million $35 Dri-Fit T-shirts fly off the shelves.

There's the other irony. The print advertising, focusing explicitly on product attributes, scarcely tries to be cool at all. But, magically, through the analog conveyance of a consumer benefit called "information," it truly is.

Hmm. Such a curiosity.

Copyright January 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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