Over the weekend, Nike released a very evocative new commercial with a single-minded message, 'We are never too far down to come back'. The ad was aired for the first time on Saturday during the live broadcast and streaming of Tiger Woods’ charity golf match with Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The three-act structure in the 90 seconds spot oscillates between struggle and pain, to find a way through, to, ultimately, triumph. It’s an inspiring message of hope, signaling there will surely be a better tomorrow. In classic Nike and W+K style, the powerful (and sinewy) visual imagery, sound (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ excellent version of David Bowie’s Life on Mars) and rousing words come together for resounding impact. The choice of words is particularly impressive, with obvious metaphors that constantly allude to the current crisis, without actually mentioning it.
“We found a way when it seemed hopeless,” James LeBron says in the ad. “We came back. We should have been long forgotten. We did it time and time again. Right now, we’re fighting for something bigger than a win or championship.” Lebron James narrates comeback stories of such world-class athletes as Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Raphael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and even himself, when each was caught in a moment of defeat or near defeat. The Akron native grew up from an at-times rough childhood to become one of the best players in basketball history, with the bulk of that career of course spent with the Cavaliers. One of those moments of despair and despondency was James leading the Cavs back from a three games to one deficit to win the 2016 NBA championship, and the metaphor is clear.
Nike has gone on record to say that the new ad is part of the brand’s ongoing campaign “You can’t stop sport,” which it launched in March earlier this year to motivate people through the pandemic.
The effort kicked off with Nike’s Instagram post featuring its iconic swish along with the message: “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.” During the shutdown, Nike has been encouraging athletes everywhere to stay active at home, through resources like the Nike Running Club App, podcasts and YouTube videos offering free workouts and guidance from experts to help them with their fitness goals.
The inevitable question is do I like the ad? To be honest, the answer is neither an emphatic ‘yes’ nor a categoric ‘no’. Of course, the footage in the ad is outstanding. Shown are some of world sports’ most poignant and touching moments of giants humbled, all-time greats on the brink; and then their return to glory, return to greatness. But that is where I have an issue with the ad. All the moments depicted in the ad are about personal triumphs … me versus myself, rather than me versus a bigger enemy or a bigger competitor. These are all self-triumphs. But the current situation is a very different challenge. It is all of humanity versus a teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy virus that has shut the whole world down and shunted all sport off the field. The ad in trying to be subtle just doesn’t come close to the actual reality. And that is where I think it misses its target.
Sure, sport will survive. Sure, there is hope. But sportsmen returning from the brink is different kind of survival and different kind of hope. The analogy does not hold true when a pandemic is razing the world, bringing economies to zilch and rendering millions jobless. This is a different kind of challenge. With need for a different kind of hope. Nike, by staying within the box, has not been able to maximize the narrative it set out to deliver. What it could have done is not for me to hazard a guess on. But what it has said thus far is uplifting for sure, but falls short of both the definitive and the divine. Alas!
Carol Goyal is a freelance writer who loves to ask difficult questions.