Yesterday, in my class at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, I spoke about early Nike women’s advertising and its hallmark positioning as an antenarrative of resistance. 1990 seems so long ago. A lifetime.
In 1990 Nike virtually ignored women and women ignored Nike. Addis owned the women’s market. Enter Janet Champ, Charlotte Moore, and later Rachel Manganiello, from Wieden + Kennedy. Together they revolutionized the way brands speak to women. Along they way the made the Nike women’s brand what it is today. For as Manganiello said, “We were using Nike to get across our own views on the matter. Nike just got lucky.” Nike got revolutionized.
At about the same time Nike was becoming the target of labor activists. They took Nike to task for its barbaric offshore labor practices. To Nike’s credit the company listened and has since become the industry’s standard-bearer for fair labor practices in offshore footwear and apparel manufacturing. Lesson learned.
Without a doubt one of the calling cards that led activists to Nike was its early women’s advertising. The messages embedded within the ads spoke with passion, calling women to stand strong. “You became significant to yourself,” read copy from spring 1991. Another ad in fall of 1991 encouraged women to become “the person YOU DECIDE to be.” Is it any wonder that labor activists were drawn to the voice of early Nike women’s advertising, which implied support for American women in contrast to the blind eye Nike turned toward the factory conditions for Asian women? You decide?
Here’s the irony. As Champ crafted copy, she and her partners found themselves fighting for a voice that spoke “truth back to people in a way they didn’t hear before.” And fight they did. “Disgusted” by what they saw in women’s magazines and “pissed off that men got big budgets,” Champ and her partners resisted sequestration in women’s magazines and fought against the impositions of the male parent brand. They made sense of women’s collective memories by questioning and by making sense of something bigger than Nike. Along the way they were accused of “siphoning off” money from men’s sports and “pinkifying” the Nike brand. They resisted. They persisted.
This advertising perfectly articulates the hallmarks of the antenarrative. In my article The Gender of Branding, I argue that the team’s, “counter-hegemonic resistance also suggests a unified point of struggle, pitting the parent brand against the subordinate women’s sub-brand.” Their work, building the Nike women’s brand, under which they were forced to prioritize femininity over athleticism, at all turns, was successful beyond Nike’s wildest dreams. Despite the fact they had to “tiptoe around women athletes being real jock,” always using “pretty” models and athletes that “never sweat,” the team build an iconic brand within a brand. They resisted patriarchal impositions at each and every turn. Analyzing the ads across time, I argue that “the influence of gender is clearly articulated in the stories shared by the creative team and demonstrated by the clash over depictions of women within the ads.” Further, the often hostile communications with Nike, “as well as the creative own life experiences, significantly shaped the branded messages within the ads and fomented passionate resistance to Nike’s patriarchal structure.” They persisted. They resisted.
In late 1995 they unveiled If You Let Me Play, the first T.V. spot for the women’s brand. It exploded onto the world. Suddenly Nike was the savior of women’s sports. The spot, like the print ads, spoke of hope. A resistant voice that had long underpinned their work and which brought the labor activists to Nike’s door, ultimately led to their demise. In 1997 the women’s account was pulled from Wieden + Kennedy and the team went silent. But, not forgotten.
In the end, to quote Champ’s copy, “It’s never too late to have a life; and it’s never too late to change one.” That is exactly what they did. Just do it.