Best of Show; and Apparel/Accessories: Nike

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Creative Directors: Hal Curtis, Jim Riswold

Art Director: Hal Curtis

Copy: Jimmy Smith

Producer: Vic Palumbo

Production Co.: HIS Productions, Culver City, Calif.

Director: Paul Hunter

Edit Co.: Rock Paper Scissors, West Hollywood, Calif.

Editor: Adam Pertofsky

Remember when Nike was unhip? It didn't last long ... maybe three years at the end of the `90s, but the conquistadors of cool undoubtedly had a little swoon. It was the sort of a swoon that happens when your poster boy, Michael Jordan, retires from the NBA and when your famously insouciant advertising begins to strain and your subcontractors in Asia are caught paying sweatshop laborers $1 a day to make $150 sneakers.

"The labor thing," Hal Curtis calls it.

"It was a punch to the gut for the brand, and it took a couple of years to recover," says the Wieden & Kennedy creative director. "I think we were very fractured in our communications. It was a difficult time. We were back on our heels."

Which, as any athlete will tell you, is how to get knocked on your ass. Then spot by spot, campaign by campaign, the panic began to subside and good things began to happen: "The Morning After" millennium spot, the global "What are you getting ready for?" campaign, Tiger Woods playing Hacky Sack with a pitching wedge and a golf ball. Then, culminating the comeback, the Ad Age Best Commercial of 2001: "Freestyle."

Through this remarkable exercise in basketball-handling and production virtuosity, Mr. Curtis and copywriter Jimmy Smith are substantially responsible for making "the labor thing" seem like a blip, and restoring the sports apparel marketer to its previous place at the creative summit. Because here's the thing about "Freestyle," which is just a precisely edited montage of NBA players and so-called street-ballers doing dribbling tricks with a basketball: It is just so damn cool, something like Twyla Tharp meets the Harlem Globetrotters.

The genesis of the spot (later expanded into an MTV video) was in Mr. Smith's fascination with street ball as an urban art form. He and choreographer Savion Glover had been collaborating on a stage show, inspired by the playground slang, "Are you dancing with the ball?" The phrase refers to ball-handling skill, but on urban playgrounds it is increasingly literally true, to a throbbing hip-hop beat from courtside boomboxes.

With the success of the "Hacky Sack" spot, Messrs. Smith and Curtis wondered if a similar display of unfathomable basketball skills would have the same appeal.

" `Freestyle' was very much influenced by `Hacky Sack,' " Mr. Curtis says.

"It was kind of weird, actually," Mr. Smith adds. "From golf to hip-hop."

Kind of weird, but also kind of logical. "Hacky Sack" was shot as an afterthought, on the set of another Tiger Woods spot for Nike, but the ex post facto explanation of the strategy was to eschew Nike didacticism ("Just do it") and empower viewers with the pure expression of sporting creativity.

Yeah, well, that scans. And with "Freestyle," as well. The bonus here is that it ties into what Mr. Smith calls "the freestyle culture" of street ball: "One-upmanship, when a guy does something to you, you got to come back and top him. It's how black culture communicates. There's a lot said in that ad that's unsaid, but you just sort of know."

What you don't know from viewing the ad (a habit-forming proposition; to try to see this spot once is like trying to eat one pistachio nut) is how complicated it was to edit. The players were given a standard hip-hop rhythm to dribble to, but they weren't very good at keeping the beat. This required many cuts, many angles and a sound track of backbeat sneaker-squeaks that didn't necessarily conform to frictional reality. The result was a more complicated bit of filmmaking than the Tiger Woods spot, but no shortfall whatsoever in irresistibility. You simply can't take your eyes off of the thing.

"The evidence of the spot in popular culture is astonishing," Mr. Curtis says, citing music videos, knockoff ads and just plain word-of-mouth. "But the cool thing is, sales did go through the roof. Apparel, the [Nike] basketball. And, of course, shoes sales."

Oh. Yeah. Shoe sales. You don't get to be AA Best for covering your sneaker tracks. You get there with superior advertising.


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