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Through this booklet I will discuss the ways in which Nike use advertising to construct meanings for its brands and products from the late 80s through to the 90s. I will discuss the idea of commodity fetishism, how Nike first removes the meanings of production context, and how Nike adds meanings through it’s adverts looking at the ideas of semiology, hero worship, urban hipness and its targeting of sports sub cultures. Through this booklet I will discuss the ways in which Nike use advertising to construct meanings for its brands and products from the late 80s through to the 90s. I will discuss the idea of commodity fetishism, how Nike first removes the meanings of production context, and how Nike adds meanings through it’s adverts looking at the ideas of semiology, Hero Worship, urban hipness and its targeting of sports sub cultures. Nike are of interest to discuss since they, by 1997 in the US, held a massive lead in the market share with 43.6% (compared to Reebok following with 15.9%) in the branded athletic footwear business and had spent $978 million on marketing, advertising and promoting the Nike brand, as described by Goldman & Papson (1998). It is important to realise however that while Nike as a company in 1997 grossed ‘over $9 billion of sales in its athletic footwear business and its relating apparel and sports equipment’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p4), they don’t actually produce their products themselves. Or as Nike’s vice president for Asia-Pacific operations was quoted in 1992: ‘We don’t know the first thing about manufacturing. We are marketers and designers’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p6). Nike’s products run off outsourced product lines from factories in several

developing nations, state Goldman & Papson (1998). However when we see a pair of Nike trainers we (or rather, those subject to Nike’s advertising and unaware of where they are made) don’t see them holding the meaning of a pair of cheaply made shoes in developing countries, we see meanings of athletic ability and of hipness. We see the swoosh (with its various meanings attached to it) as defining the Nike trainer even though all ‘the major brands roll side by side off the same production lines’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p9). This change of meaning is by a process called commodity fetishism: “This refers to the process by which mass-produced goods are emptied of the meaning of their production (the context in which they were produced and the labour who created them) and then filled with new meanings in ways that both mystify the product and turn it into a fetish object” (Sturken & Cartwright 2009, p280) It is important to see that these meanings and values aren’t ‘produced in the Indonesian factories where the shoe is assembled and stitched’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p11) they are produced by Nike’s design and marketing specialists in Beaverton, Oregon.


An example of this process is Nike’s Air Jordan trainers, these start out with little meaning since we have no information about where or who produced them. The product therefore must be ‘given value by a person or object [Michael Jordan] which already has value to us’ (Williamson, 1978, p31), Jordan had already become a fan favourite and had even appeared on the December 1984 cover of Sports Illustrated with the heading “A Star is Born” in just over a month into his first season in the NBA. The first commercial for Air Jordan is the Jordan Flight ad (see fig 1), in this we hear the revving noises of a jet engine while Jordan is running to the basket, just as the noise of the jet engine reaches take-off velocity we see Jordan jump into the air. He seems to soar in the air as if he can fly, suddenly the hoop is in shot, with Jordan slam dunking the ball. This is followed by the phrase “Who said man was not meant to fly?” and the Nike logo. We can look at the way this advert attaches meanings to the commodity (Air Jordan trainers) by looking into the ideas of semiology. In this advert we have something about the product that is being signified (Athleticism, speed, reaching a level of success beyond the standard) however they need to come from something that already has these meanings attached to it for the audience, so we have the signifier (the correlating thing or person with

meanings attached) Michael Jordan (Williamson, 1978). We see that in an advert Nike cannot only transfer the meanings of someone to their brand/ product but can also enhance these meanings through building them within the framework of the advert; the noise of the jet engine emphasising the propulsion of Jordan as he rises high and long into the air, the worm’s-eye view of Jordan slam dunking the ball adds height and distance to the hoop, the multi shots/cuts add a second or two to airborne time. However since athletic heroes are so focused on within sports discourse, linking your products to athletic heroes like Jordan will also transfer meanings of individualism, hard work and achievement, and since many athletes emerge out of lower classes the image of an athletic hero comes to symbolising the American Dream itself (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p48). This advert was so successful that when Air Jordan line hit the stores in April 1985 ‘Nike couldn’t keep up with the demand’ and it sold ‘over $100 million in it’s first year’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p47).

Fig 1


If it was down to the Jordan Flight (see fig 1) commercials creating meanings of success, athleticism, and even links to the American Dream, it was in an ensuring campaign featuring actor/ director Spike Lee that would create it’s personality we see until the modern day. These adverts were created by the advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy, with the aim of ‘develop[ing] a selfreferential intertextual style for Nike … in turn selling authenticity by developing a playful relationship with its athletes, the media, the audience and itself’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p48). In these commercials Spike Lee plays his character Mars Blackmon from his film “She’s Gotta Have It”. In an early advert (see fig 2), Mars addresses Jordan about “what makes [him] the best player in the universe” through a series of questions “Is it the vicious dunks?” “Is it the haircut?” “Is it the shoes?” “Is it the extra long shorts?” “Is it the short socks?” “It’s the shoes right?” with Jordan replying “No Mars” to all the questions in a calm soothing voice, finishing with “Mike it’s gotta be the shoes” and the Nike logo. This advert playfully addresses the way meanings are attached to commodities through adverts (including the Jordan Flight ad (see fig 1)) with images of speed, success and athleticism. This helps Nike distance itself from ‘such philistine attitudes’ (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p48), and open acknowledges that

the commodity (Air Jordan trainers) won’t give the owner magical powers like Jordan, even with Mars teasing “It’s must be the shoes”. This mocks the standard format used by its market competitors and Nike itself, for adding meanings to commodities. Through mocking itself and its competitors, meanings of intelligence, authenticity and media literacy are attached to the Nike brand. However by Nike using Spike Lee for these ads (see fig 2) it also adds another set of meanings to the brand. “She’s Gotta Have It” deals with themes of individual desire, black liberation and sexuality and was still mostly unknown to the majority of television viewers with even fewer being able to reflect on the politics of the film (Goldman & Papson, 1998). This shows Nike as a company that recognises and appreciates urban hipness, and hails to viewers that recognise and appreciate the link to Spike Lee’s film. We can once again look at the way this advert attaches meanings to the commodity (Air Jordan trainers) by looking into the ideas of semiology. In this advert we have something about the product that is being signified (Urban hipness, media literacy) however this comes from something that already has these meanings attached to it for the audience, and so Spike Lee becomes the signifier (Williamson, 1978).

Fig 2


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Nike aims a major percentage of their adverts at sport subcultures, and pride themselves on connecting with athletes in terms of the authenticity of their sports and speaking the voice of that subculture (Goldman & Papson, 1998). They do this by targeting specific sports with different adverts, and will create a sense of insider knowledge using shared values, rituals, jokes, heroes, concerns of that targeted subculture. As with Spike Lee in the later Air Jordan adverts I discussed, Nike creates boundaries around the shared knowledge of that community/subculture making people feel connected to the content of the advert when they “get the joke, or share the concern, or recognise the player” (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p37). An example of this kind of advertising tactic is Nike’s What If All Athletes Were Treated Like Skateboarders? adverts (see fig 3) that ran in 1997, the skateboarding community is known for is distrust and hostile attitudes towards corporate America (Goldman & Papson, 1998, p37) so Nike has to attach meanings of understanding and inside knowledge to sell itself to this kind of market. These adverts show golfers, runners and tennis players being hassled by security guards and the police for participating in their sports. In the running advert it documents a couple of runners being hassled by pedestrians and police officers just for running. It is narrated by a runner talking about this harassment “All we want to do is just run man. We’re regular guys, as soon as we do this [running motion with arms] we’re criminals. People get so freaked out.” Then clips of abuse from pedestrians are shown “Do you have to do this here” “You crazy people” “Get out the road” “I used to run, when I was eight” “She almost hit that lady”. This is followed by a heart felt message by the narrator “And there are runners everywhere, good runners too and they all go through the same thing. Runners aren’t criminals. Running’s not a crime,

you know. I just wanna run, wanna run, I just wanna run.” Followed by the text “What If All Athletes Were Treated Like Skateboarders?” and the Nike logo. This advert targets a skateboarding audience who are used to this kind of harassment from the same kind of people in this advert day after day. It appeals to their frustration on the subject while showing Nike as a supporter with inside knowledge. By looking into the ideas of semiology we can look at the way this advert attaches meanings to the commodity (Air Jordan trainers). In this advert we have something about the product that is being signified (Insider knowledge, view of skateboarding as a ‘real’ sport in contrast to the popular view of it as an alternative sport, a sense of authenticity) however they need to come from something that already has these meanings attached to it for the audience, so we have the signifier (the correlating thing, person or situation with meanings attached) in this case being harassment from people and cops (Williamson, 1978).

Fig 3


We have seen how Nike takes it’s products that have been produced by outsourced factories in developing countries, and has filled them with meanings constructed by it’s design and marketing specialists in Beaverton, Oregon and select advertising agencies. They have taken these meanings from selected signifiers (people and situations) and attached them to their brand and products. They took the athleticism and success of Jordan, the urban hipness and media literate meanings of Spike Lee’s character Mars Blackmon, meanings of authenticity for mocking the style of advertising of their competitors and themselves, and even meanings of authenticity and inside knowledge to a market that has always hated corporate businesses.

Bibliography: Goldman, R and Papson, S (1998) Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh, Sage Highmore, B (2009) ‘The Lure of Things’ in A Passion for Cultural Studies, Palgrave/Macmillian Sturken, M and Cartwright, L (2001) ‘Consumer Culture and the Manufacturing of Desire’ in Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture Williamson, J (2002) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertisements, Marion Boyars Publishers

Internet Sources: Wazir, B (2001) Nike accused of tolerating sweatshops [online], The Observer, Available from: http://www. guardian.co.uk/world/2001/may/20/ burhanwazir.theobserver


Written & Designed by Maxim McNair


How Nike creates meanings for it's products