The cancellation of March Madness due to the coronavirus pandemic has led not only to the disappointment of fans but also an upheaval of marketing. The tournament was set to kick off this week, supported by ads from Coca-Cola, Coors Light, Corona and more who have had to scramble to readjust their plans around the event.
A classic campaign, however—Nike's first-ever March Madness push from 1999—feels like an eerie reflection of these times of contagion.
The ads, created out of Wieden + Kennedy Portland and directed by Dante Ariola, likened March Madness fever to a vicious epidemic, imagining fans and players’ passion for the tournament through a sterile, sci-fi lens. Fast forward 20 years and now Nike’s campaign seems creepily prescient.
“It feels odd to have something we did as a joke so long ago become so real and unfunny,” says veteran creative Mike Folino, who was a copywriter on the campaign alongside art director Arty Tan and account director Jenny Youngblood Campbell, who also helped conceive key themes of the push. “When the tournament got canceled, all of us that worked on the campaign immediately called and texted each other. I got a lot of calls and emails from friends making jokes. But it’s unsettling now to see images that we conjured up actually coming to life.”
One ad (above) depicted a group of scientists heavily cloaked in protective gear while inspecting the environment around a group of March Madness fans. “We’ve got a level nine,” says one. “Quarantine it all.” They make their way to a locker room, where they discover stashes of Nike shoes and apparel, which they throw into a massive pile and incinerate with a blow torch.
Another spot, set in a laboratory, depicts two of the researchers injecting the blood of Duke and Chapel Hill players into a pair of rats, who then rabidly tear into each other.
A third ad sees the scientists cutting into a Chapel Hill fan who had reached “level four” contagion after an “incubation period” of “less than 24 hours.” The tagline of the campaign reads, “March Madness. It’s spreading.”
Folino says the campaign was inspired by on-the-ground research the Wieden & Kennedy and Nike teams conducted with college basketball fans, players and coaches at schools, including Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky.
“Arty and I were hanging out in a motel in Lexington talking about how rabid all the fans were,” he says. “To us, it was like March Madness was a real disease. And it was like a light went on: that was the idea.”
The creatives originally came up with a series of scripts Folino describes as “jokey.” Their creative directors at the time, Chuck McBride (who now runs his own shop Cutwater) and Wieden vet Hal Curtis, loved the idea “but wanted us to play the idea straighter,” Folino recalls.
So Folino and his teammates then “watched every contagion movie ever made—several times,” he says. Those included “Outbreak,” “The Andromeda Strain” and even “The X-Files.”
“One of the things that helped was to make the dialogue as sparse and medical as possible,” he says.
Perhaps the most important element, however, was Nike’s role in all of it. After the creative was nearly wrapped, “Nike came back to us at the last minute and said they wanted a script that really showed off their shoes and apparel—not just a little but a lot,” Folino says, adding that Nike wanted a product shot that lasted an entire 10 seconds.
The solution? “We figured out that the only way to make it work was for the product not to be the hero—we had to make it the villain,” he says. That led to the scene with the massive heap of Nike gear getting torched. “To their credit, they loved the idea,” he says.After the campaign debuted, the reactions were mixed, says Folino. "We got a lot of complaints that it was too graphic, but the college kids loved it. People started showing up to games bringing IVs of blue stuff, fans would write 'I'm infected' on their chests and it even got mentions on SportsCenter."
Ad Age reached out to Nike and Wieden about the campaign in light of current events but has yet to hear back.