“Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We are all capable of it. All of us.”

-Tom Hardy, in Nike’s “Find Your Greatness ad”

It was during the 2012 London Olympics when Nike launched an advertising campaign under the slogan “Find your greatness.” After the one-minute television showcase, Nike’s Youtube channel was bombarded with visitors. The campaign consisted of short, minute-long videos, featuring “everyday athletes” from all over the world including South Africa, Jamaica, China, and many more. According to the Mail Online, the most popular ad in the campaign, titled “The Jogger,” received close to one million hits.

Nike recruited sporty “Londoners” outside of England’s London (London in Ohio, East London in South Africa, Little London in Jamaica, etc) in order to fully expound the campaign’s London Olympics theme. Furthermore, the campaign ran in 25 countries, and the showcase coincided with the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Critics noted that “Nike’s campaign is clearly designed to cash in on Olympic fever and get one over on arch-rival Adidas, which has paid tens of millions of pounds to be an official London 2012 global sponsor” (Sweney). Surprisingly, however,  Nike was not chosen as the official sponsor for the 2012 London Olympics while its competitor, Adidas was.

Nike’s “Find your greatness” advertising campaign, tried to differentiate itself from Adidas by featuring amateur athletes as opposed to professional athletes. They aimed to suggest that the idea of “greatness” and other “achievements” were not necessarily “reserved for chosen few.” But rather,  it is something “we are all capable of”. Nonetheless, the target audience, Nike is trying to reach, ultimately coincides with viewers of Adidas advertisements; and this is perplexing because Nike is contradicting itself and the message they are trying to deliver.

On its official website, Nike,  quoted: “A powerful message to inspire anyone who wants to achieve their own moment of greatness in sport, launched just as the world focuses on the best of the best.” The quote encapsulated the core message of the campaign. The website further stated that not only “championship athletes” but also “everyday,” “amateur” athletes “can strive” and “achieve their own defining moment of greatness.” Nike is trying to deliver very hopeful messages to its viewers here; however, the advertisements do not seem to parallel such sentiments and meanings. We will be conducting “semiotic analysis” for two video advertisements (aired on television, released on Nike’s Youtube Channel) in order to better understand the basic structures and elements of the advertisement which will allow us to comprehend more concrete “functions” and “meanings” the campaign constitutes (Leiss et al. 164). There are 4 steps in the process we have to take: 1) identify signifiers 2) What are the signified? 3) What meanings does signifiers assign to the product? 3) What social norms and values does the ad promote? 4) Are there particular social groups the ad speaks to?

First ad is “The Jogger,” which was the most popular one for both regular viewers and media critics. We first have to identify “signifiers,” which are “the material vehicle of the meaning” (164). Some signifiers we can identify here include 1) Obese white boy jogging and sweating in athletic clothing 2) Narrative voice (by Tom Hardy) that recites “Greatness, It is just something we made up. Somehow we came to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for chosen few. For prodigies, for super stars, and rest of us can only stand by and watching. We can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. It’s not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. WE are all capable of it. All of us.” 3)Early Morning 4) Empty Road 5) Nike Logo 6) Campaign slogan “Find Your Greatness.” Next step is to figure out “signified,” which is deriving “meaning” from the “signifiers” we just identified (164).  On the surface, the signifiers all suggest the “hopeful” messages Nike initially intended for the audiences. However, when we give ourselves more time to think about the signifiers they are a bit strange and unnatural in many ways. It becomes  more evident that the video was scripted and artificially crafted for the audience to brew sympathy for the jogger, who is an obese individual who is breathing heavily in order to achieve his goal. And frankly, such images are not very “usual” or “realistic.”

The jogger may not even be under the category of “amateur athlete” who we can encounter on the street or in the gym. Am I making false assumptions here that obese people do not go or are not allowed in the gym? Maybe. But it is something that I learned from our society. Our societal norm suggests us some skewed stereotypes about obese people that they do not exercise but all they do everyday is endlessly consuming. Some Youtube-users may agree with me on this since the video created responses such as:

(Screenshot of a Youtube comment http://ow.ly/l2AXD )

(Screenshot of a Youtube comment http://ow.ly/l2B0K )

And yet again, Nike’s “The Jogger” ad is subtly reminding us with such stereotypes by putting two seemingly “opposite” subjects together. The audience automatically will assume that the jogger is going through a tough time because he is overweight. And it is not only the jogger but also the place setting of the ad seems very odd and surreal. There is only one person (the jogger) that appears in the ad because he is the only person running on the road. Remembering our usual, everyday circumstances, there should be other people running or even walking pass by you. We would start to feel scared and anxious when we are the only ones walking on the street. So, Nike, by attaching  stereotypes to the obese protagonist, is actually contradicting its intended message that greatness does not belong to any specific group. “Greatness” shines even brighter when achieved by someone unexpected like the overweight jogger. Whether the advertisement was a success or not, Nike established a new cultural meaning in our society that obese people desire exercising and jogging. And this new cultural meaning adds a new “value” or “meaning” to Nike’s Swoosh “sign value,” which “establishes the relative value of a brand” and emphasizes “difference” in various brands where their products’ “functions difference…is minimal” (Goldman, Papson 84).

The signifiers in the second ad consists of: 1) Chinese teenager practicing Wushu (Chinese martial arts) along with some other Chinese kids 2) Tom Hardy’s narrative “If you’d like to tell the guy with the sword he’s not great because he’s not famous…be my guest.” 3) In China/Asia (there are Chinese characters written on the pillars in the gym) While the obese white boy joggs in Ohio and challenging himself to achieve greatness, his Chinese friend, again, practices his Wushu skills. Can this be the other way around? The Chinese boy is jogging and sweating in London, Ohio while the white boy practices Wushu.

    By coming up an Asian Wushu athlete, Nike have given efforts to bring in diversity to its ad campaign. And also diversity would have been a key factor since Nike initiated the campaign during the Olympics, an international event watched by people from all over the globe. However, we question ourselves again—“Would this be an incident of diversity representation or racial stereotypes?” Although, as trite as it sounds, not every Chinese/Asian person retain Kung-fu skills like Jackie Chan. However, it is also true that Jackie Chan is one of the most well-known figure with Asian ethnic background in the Western society that for some people, their very “first” exposure to Asians or Asian communities was via Rush Hour trilogy. And Jackie Chan, when he became famous, he also immediately became an attractive character for the advertisers that this Asian Kung-fu master character was forced to become the subject of commodification, which then created another stereotype for Asians. Consumer goods, being nonverbal communicators that reveal “status, roles, social mobility, social structures, lifestyle”, have always been a big part in building our popular culture that they consistently contribute in making and reinforcing cultural meanings in society (Leiss et al. 230). Then it is also the responsibility of advertisers and mass media participants to correct and construct new identities and meanings for various communities that are often targeted to become subjects of commodification. Therefore, recruiting  a different Asian amateur athlete that is not too stereotypical would have been more effective for Nike’s campaign  since “The Jogger” also offers a rather unexpected scene to its consumers.

 (An example of Jackie Chan merchandise that reveals a stereotype)

When most brands and companies dedicate a large chunk of their budget on TV ads and print ads, Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign depended heavily on social media and the Internet, which are usually peripheral part of most ad campaigns. Nike released the ad videos to the consumers via its Youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/nike) where the videos received million views and widespreaded. The videos themselves were produced to be very short (less than a minute), which was appropriate for fast-changing web communities and fast-clicking web users. Furthermore, Nike created a hashtag (#findgreatness) on Twitter “to ignite conversation around how athletes everywhere find their own greatness” and also to allow digital version of “words-of-mouth” marketing between Twitter-users. Utilization of social media, especially Twitter, allowed the campaign to be a big success since more global audiences paid attention to the campaign and were also allowed to participate in spreading the words using #findgreatness.

(Screenshot of Nike’s Youtube Channel)

(Screenshot of various Tweets on Twitter #findgreatness)

    Running and marketing the campaign through social media also made younger audience pay more attention to the campaign. Olympics, even though it is one of the biggest international event, is not the hottest, most popular topic for current generation. However, the youth generation has always been a crucial, attractive market for most consumer products due to 1) large amount of disposable income that can be spent 2) maintaining of customer loyalty 3) largely influenced by others (Klein 66, 81; Leiss et. al 478-479). However, the young audiences, also known as “Generation X,” are also conceived to be the most difficult market to reach to because they are “tech-savy,”  “alienated  spectator” who tend to get engaged in rather “anti-conventional, frame-breaking” type ads rather than traditional type ads (471, 483). Therefore, social media marketing for the campaign was most apt and efficient method to approach the young consumers that spend much of their time surfing around the Internet looking for something “cool.” Furthermore, Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” ad campaign visual ads (videos) featuring various amateur athletes from diverse backgrounds  which was also very appropriate for Gen X that tend to prefer  “heavily image-based advertising” that “specifically use freedom a theme in their depictions of diverse people” (484-485). The young audience’s attention and participation revealed through various creative “parody” videos that also got shared on Youtube.

(An example of a Parody Video on Youtube “Jogger”)

    In conclusion, Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” ad was very successful. The advertisements were unique in a sense that they retained high production values with occasionally having creative and novel subjects. Also, the marketing and distribution method of the campaign was also another creative side of the process where it showed the effectiveness of social media. However, what is worrisome for the me is that the campaign was still an advertisement that promotes consumerism in a “sneakily” and “unnoticeable” way that is hard for us to figure out. What Nike is ultimately promoting in their various encouraging messages is that all of us, even though we are not star players or champions, can achieve greatness but when only we purchase Nike sporting products. Therefore, the entire campaign can be a perfect example of therapeutic ethos: “to arouse consumer demand by associating products with imaginary states of well-being” (Leiss et al. 74). And also the campaign, while being creatively crafted, retains various negative cultural meanings and outdated stereotypes in our society and the campaign is targeting young audiences that are easily vulnerable to influences. The current generation is where we need to strive to start eradicating irrational stereotypes and societal meanings completely. We can not further instill and re-instill such ideals.

Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” declares that we all can achieve success and greatness even though we may consider ourselves as not as important or special than professional athletes. But we live in a society where societal barriers and stereotypes are constantly being reminded and projected to us by even an ad campaign that wants to overcome our weaknesses and achieve greatness. #findgreatness #contradiction

Works Cited

Goldman, Robert, and Stephen Papson. “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning.” (1996): 82-98. Print.

Klein, Naomi. “Chapter 3: Alt.Everything.” No Logo. New York: Picador USA, 2000. 63-85. Print.

Leiss, William, Jackie Botterill, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally. Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

“Nike Launches “Find Your Greatness” Campaign.” NIKE, Inc. N.p., 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://nikeinc.com/news/nike-launches-find-your-greatness-campaign-celebrating-inspiration-for-the-everyday-athlete&gt;.

“Revealed: The 200lb 12-year-old Star of Nike’s Controversial New Ad… and How He Is Now Hitting the Gym to Lose Weight.” Mail Online. N.p., 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 14 May 2013.

Sweney, Mark. “Olympics 2012: Nike Plots Ambush Ad Campaign.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 July 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jul/25/olympics-2012-nike-ambush-ad&gt;.