February 6, 2005

More Superbowl-Inspired Coverage: Game Faces

I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the new Nike commercials featuring famous sports stars wearing masks.  The concept is based on the “game face” athletes put on to psych themselves up for competition.

 I Magazine New Roethlisberger 180-3   I Magazine New Rivera 180-1

 I Magazine New Urlacher 180-3   I Magazine New Hunter 180-2

The campaign, titled “Warriors,” is supposed to refer to sport, not battle.  With the open-ended “War on Terror” the warheads in Washington are waging, however, the distinction is hard to draw.

Because today is the Superbowl, however, I think its only fitting to restrict the critique to sports.

If you’ve been following the BAG, you know the considerable credit I give the advertising industry for its ability to shape and manipulate images.  By identifying and playing off connection points between aggression and expression, fear and exhiliration, these images create real and disturbing tensions. 

What’s even more disturbing, however, is how naive the creators of these images are to their meanings.  An advertising column in the NYTimes (link) featured some of the explanations.  One executive characterizes the campaign as creating a tension between aggression and good sportsmanship:

“The entire sports industry is struggling with finding the right balance between aggressive, ‘Winning is everything’ behavior and the spirit of ‘It’s how you play the game that counts,’ ” said Allen P. Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates in New York….  “The challenge for advertisers and marketers,” he added, “is to judge where the balance is at any given point in time, and capture the competitiveness but not lose the sportsmanship values of teamwork and camaraderie. You can play near the line and be O.K., but stepping over it can be risky for a brand.”

Nancy Monsarrat, the United States advertising director for Nike, characterizes the ads as balancing thrill with intimidation.  “The way we talked about it here is that as a whole it ought to feel like a roller coaster ride,” She continues: “Were you intimidated? Yes. But you want to go back and do it again.”

Finally, Mike Byrne, the co-creative director at the advertising agency that worked on the campaign, believes the ads play intimidation off with the personality of the athlete. “Intimidation is definitely part of it,” he says, as well as a desire to provide “a reflection of the inner athlete we never get to see.”

As creative as these people are, I think they are too close to the product, and too compromised by commercial interests, to see these images from a larger perspective.  Lets get real here.  How much do these images really communicate about sportsmanship or positive reflections of the inner athlete?

Here are a few things the images suggest to me: 

First, they say:  Stay out of my face.  What with games turning into opportunities for rich spoiled fans to mix it up with rich spoiled players, it’s no wonder these athletes are wearing spikes or barbed wire. 

With profit hungry leagues and owners building stadiums and arenas that increase the distance between players and spectators, making today’s players accessible primarily through video screens or computer games, it’s no wonder these athletes are objectified as remote, android-like creatures. 

Given the drugs and doping and greed and sexual acting out ascribed to athletes these days, you could say that, rather than concealing the players,  this headgear actually unmasks the athlete, revealing personalities we really can’t help seeing.

(images: Nike, via ESPN Page 3)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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