Is Advertising A Cult? The Latest Nike Ad Would Say It Is

Is Advertising A Cult? The Latest Nike Ad Would Say It Is

In his latest guest post, B&T columnist and industry contrarian Robert Strohfeldt (pictured below) argues Nike’s latest campaign may have caused the shitstorm the brand hoped, but, in reality, it’s nothing we all haven’t seen before…

Work in any industry for over 30 years and you will see many changes. There is nothing worse than some old bastard saying, “things were better in my day”. But not all change is for the better. And you discover that what is touted as new today, the underlining principals are no different to 30 years ago. The jargon has changed, but the not the fundamentals.


By far the biggest change has been within the attitudes and behaviours of the people in marketing and advertising, not consumers.

This article was written in 1997. Facts and figures that were being highlighted last year and earlier this year as “new” were plainly obvious 21 years ago!

What is a cult?

Many people of think of a Charles Manson type group when hearing the word cult i.e. something evil and totally removed from the mainstream.

But a cult isn’t necessarily evil. The Oxford Dictionary provides different definitions, or more accurately, types of cults:

  • A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.
  • A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
  • A person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.
  • A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular thing 

Definitions three and four apply to advertising (and marketing).

There are many examples of cult like/group think that are dominating advertising today. It all started with the digital madness at the turn of the century.

Back then, digital media was the future and traditional media was yesterday. It didn’t quite work out that way. The past five years, in particular, has seen a realignment in thinking and the realisation that the term “digital” is past its use by date.

There’s no one size fits all and with so many platforms/media available, integration is a must, rather than either/or. (We won’t talk about the conflicts of interest, inaccuracies/inability to accurately measure online media etc. Books are being written on this).

Even so, as the industry preaches diversity, it moves closer and closer toward thinking as one – a cultish approach. Diversity is more than skin deep:

The reaction to the latest Nike ad, featuring Colin Kaepernick, further reinforced the cultish/group think attitude of the industry.

One of the other industry publications asked a number of “creative directors” their opinion. They all swooned over it.

  • We want to be doing work that makes a difference in the world. (The United Colours of Benetton campaign in 1984 – “Everybody is united by the Colors of Benetton.  No matter your race, culture or sex”. The first mass market brand to take this approach. On its knees now, the 82 year old founder has come back in an effort to save the brand.)
  • A reason why creative directors always use Nike ads.
  • So brave
  • I wish I made it
  • Carries on the Nike tradition
  • Blah, blah, blah.

They were all signing from the one hymn/cult book. I thought we were in the advertising business, not the preaching business.

One slight problem. It was all utter bullshit, not supported by historical fact.  There seems to be a lot of myth about Nike advertising.

  • It has NEVER been about social issues (as was Benetton, way back in 1984)
  • The “Just Do It” campaign was coined in 1988 by Dan Wieden (Wieden+Kennedy) taken from Gary Gilmore’s (convicted murderer) supposed last words “Let’s Do It”, before he was executed by firing squad, January 17th 1977, in the state of Utah after a 10 year moratorium on executions. Rather ironic that Nike used the words of a convicted murderer for the basis of their “iconic” campaign and made billions. (Very socially minded)
  • Nike rose to fame on the back of sponsoring elite athletes.  The pro tennis player Ille Nastase (1970s) was the first.  Michael Jordan (whose signing played a huge role in growing the brand), Tiger Woods, Roger Federer (who has since quit), Ronaldinho.  The list of athletes and sports grew and grew with the brand’s popularity. The elite of nearly every major sport in the world were at one time or another, sponsored by Nike.
  • As well as great athletes Nike showed moments/struggles the average punter could identify with. Oscar Pistorius was sponsored by Nike but shooting and killing your girlfriend is not in the spirit Nike was aiming to engender.
  • Though subjective, here is a list of 25 “great” Nike campaigns over the years. Pick just one that is divisive!

The one thing they all have in common is broad appeal, not divisiveness.

  • So, the latest Nike campaign has nothing in common with their great campaigns of the past. Roughly half of America agreed with Kaepernick, half didn’t. If you think pissing off half your potential customers to express a political opinion is good advertising, you are in the wrong business.

It seems “Brand Purpose” is overriding commercial reality. One of the founders of Nike, Phil Knight, was once quoted as saying “I could not stand to even be in the same room as my competitors” (Reebok, Adidas etc.) He was all about winning (and money) at any cost.

I had the “pleasure” (pleasure not the right word) of meeting him once. A meaner, nastier guy you would not meet. If he thought that showing someone being lynched would sell more shoes, he would not hesitate to show it.

It has been recognised for decades, probably longer, that being good is good for business. Think Rotary or why ever major not for profit organisation has corporate sponsors? And yes, if you have been fortunate to make a few quid, you should give something back.

But turning advertising into a lobby group such a GetUp, Sleeping Giants etc. is a step too far. For a company to contribute it must be viable and profitable.

(Only socialists see that as evil and we have seen how socialism turns out!)

Brand purpose is a crazy, cultish concept, dreamed up by someone with no commercial sense of reality.

The great irony here though is they are trying to sell shoes – hoping the highlighting of Kaepernick’s stance will be commercially beneficial. If you think they are doing it for any other reason, then you may as well believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. (And join a cult)

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