Saying something nice about Nike (part one)

Posted by Rob Walker on June 18, 2008
Posted Under: Advertising,Reviews

So there’s this thing in the book where I mention how bummed out I was when Nike bought Converse, and pretty much every interviewer asks me about it, so I kind of feel like I’ve been on a Nike-bashing tour lately.

Even so, as I say in the book, speaking as a business journalist who writes about branding, I am in awe of Nike: As a capitalist success story, and as an exercise in the raw power of image-making, it is truly astonishing.

Here’s a case in point. The other day I got a call from Eric Neel at He was writing about some ads Nike had going during the U.S. Open, featuring Tiger Woods. Being totally indifferent to golf, and kind of busy, I knew nothing about this, but he told me the basics. I’ll quote here from Neel’s subsequent June 12 article:

In Nike’s new Tiger Woods commercial entitled “Never,” Earl Woods’ recorded voice plays over clips of his son, as a boy and as a man, practicing his legendary swing. Full of gravitas and pathos, it’s at once the voice of the guru who raised the greatest golfer who has ever lived and the voice of the absent father who died of cancer a little more than two years ago.

While Tiger starts and stops his swings, Earl explains the way he often intentionally distracted his son in order to make him stronger, sometimes dropping a bag full of clubs when Tiger was at the top of his backswing.

“I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you,'” Earl says as we look upon his son’s unmistakably steely gaze, “‘that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”

See the ad here if you like.

Earl Woods, as you may know, is dead. So this is a pretty intense ad. Also possibly creepy, but never mind that. What Neel was curious about was, given that Woods went into this tournament recovering from knee surgery and not in top physical condition, wasn’t there a risk that he would stink up the joint, and both he and Nike would look bad?

In my role as a totally uninformed pundit, I responded that I didn’t think the risk was all that great, or rather that whatever risk there was actually made sense for Nike, which has long taken risks with its advertising, and has been almost impossibly effective at keeping its image fresh and relevant year after year. If this effort failed, well, so it goes.

But — what if Tiger wins? If he does, surely the coverage will be all about his awesome mental toughness and so on. Just like in the Nike ad! In fact, the ad would seem like part of the narrative of the tournament, almost like real-life Tiger was taking his cues from the inspiring marketing campaign.

And of course, Woods won.

Needless to say, I didn’t watch a single second of the coverage, so I don’t know how it all came across. But if Nike took a risk, they sure got the payoff. My musings had nothing to do with any guesses about Woods’ performance. But I will admit I followed a particular instinct: Don’t bet against Nike marketing.

So there’s that. I’ll say something else nice about Nike tomorrow. And it’s not about their ads. Or not exactly.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Isn’t this same challenge faced by every brand who uses celebrity endorsers? If you use musicians, sports figures, or actors to sell your product then you run the risk that they’ll commit a crime or make an outrageous statement or abuse a substance in public. Of course, then you can get the self-righteous “we’re dumping Sharon Stone” PR out of it.

Not winning a Grammy, Oscar, or Grey Cup (etc.) seems to be the least of the worries of these brand folks, but then I could be wrong :)

Written By Steve Portigal on June 18th, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

As it happens, I do like golf, and was watching Sunday, and – yes. It came across incredibly powerfully. Not going to make me buy a pair of Nikes, but it did very much both create and reinforce the narrative of unbelievable mental focus around Tiger Woods.

It is, of course, just as much about marketing the brand that is Tiger Woods – something that I’d argue probably extends (in a positive way) onto the golf course (that is, his aura/narrative of overwhelming supremacy serves to underscore his dominance and further intimidate his opponents). And… I mean, it was a powerfully produced message, and this gets into some potentially icky territory here, but: Sunday was Father’s Day – and Tiger’s first as a father himself – and as you note, Tiger’s dad is gone. It was… okay, I’ll say it – a moving tribute, and a fitting one.

Also, shifting gears – Neel’s a sports guy so he should (well, probably does) know that the answer to “what if Tiger stinks up the joint?” is, “that’s exceedingly unlikely,” especially in major championships. And, obviously, the reward high.

Written By jkd on June 18th, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

With Nike, it’s all about the ads. (I want my Converse back.)

Loving the book, planning to write about it at my site soon, placing a review of it somewhere soon as well. Keep up the good work.

Written By Matt on June 18th, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

saw most of the coverage, and the ad. the ad’s incredibly intense, and i think for many people effective. i found it crazily creepy: they were using tiger’s dead dad, on father’s day, to help move product. of course i still find iggy pop and cruise commercials weird, so i guess i’m just a hopelessly cranky old man.

Written By Peter Kafka on June 18th, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

Steve Portigal: Seems very different to me (unknown possible risk vs. fairly obvious tangible risk), but I guess I understand your point. I’m still recovering from your reference to the “publicity juggernaut” for Buying In. If you only knew the truth.

jkd: In fairness to Mr. Neel, that “stink up the joint’ thing was my line. But lots of people seemed to think Woods would have trouble with this tournament.

Matt: Thanks!

And Mr. Kafka: You and me both.

Written By Rob Walker on June 19th, 2008 @ 7:10 am

I have to point out, without being able to prove this at all unless the footage is online, but I swear the NBC announcer, during play, pretty much quoted the entire copy of the Nike ad. All about Tiger’s mental toughness, the father’s words, etc. I remember thinking it was way too over the top.

Now, it was Sunday afternoon, and I was drinking. But it was strange enough that I noticed it. Anyone else catch this? I can’t decide how “serious an infraction” I’d find this to be: NBC’s announcer repeating Nike’s ad copy, more or less treating it as his own commentary.

Written By Jason on June 19th, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

Good stuff Rob. You know you secretly want to become a Nike fan, just admit it. Here’s my take on Nike and this post:

Written By Rick Liebling on June 19th, 2008 @ 10:52 pm
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