Fair warning to my male readers: this is an article, more like a gushing fan letter really, about my very favourite ad campaign of all time, and it’s clearly directed at female consumers. Most men I’ve shown this to – including my business school profs and agency creative types I’ve worked with since then – merely scratch their heads and squint. They do not get it. And that’s okay, because men are simply not the target market for this ad. I love this brilliant ad so much that I’ve actually kept the original Vanity Fair magazine where I first discovered it back in October, 1993.
This ad breaks all the rules of effective advertising. It features huge blocks of small-font text, juxtaposed with ethereal full-page sepia photographs of women. And until you get to the very last page of this 12-page ad – and we can only imagine what a 12-page ad in V.F. costs! – there’s not even a mention of any product that’s being advertised. For me, however, this ad works. See what you think:
FALLING IN LOVE IN SIX ACTS
A passion play
(Or what happens when you fall down that long well of passion
over a person, a place, a sport, a game, a belief, and your heart goes boom and your mind leaves town.)
ACT I: LUST (I think I love you. Who are you anyway?)
Here it is, the big “Wow!” the big “Gee!” the big “YesYesYes!” you’ve been waiting for. This is where you find something or someone and believe they are better, greater, cuter, wiser, more wonderful than anything you have ever known. Lust isn’t a sin, it’s a necessity, for with lust as our guide we imagine our bodies moving the way our bodies were meant to move: we can do marathons with our feet, lift pounds with our arms, have stars in our eyes and do a nifty tango. And you think: I have no need of food, I have no need of sleep, I have no needs other than occasionally chewing a breath mint. You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me, probably because you haven’t happened to me yet. Now I can pass into the next Act, so poetically called:
ACT II: EUPHORIA (Or: Oh Yippee, you’re mine.)
You feel funny inside. You feel funny outside. You feel you could do anything and no one would dare laugh at you. This love, you will treasure. You will not put it in the basement next to your rowing machine, treadmill, and thermal body sweat wrap. And you will not take this love for granted, because that is the biggest sin of all. And you say: I feel so good, I feel so strong, I feel actually attractive and I could learn to live with that feeling. Oh, let us sing and dance and eat brown mushy foods low in fat! Oh, joy! Oh, rapture! —– Oh, but what if I’m no good at this? Oh, I am no good at this. I am a dingy speck on the wall of humanity and look how badly painted that wall is! I am becoming very, very afraid. That must be because I’m passing into the Third Act, called:
ACT III FEAR (Also known as: Uh-oh.)
This is where the doubt begins, where the mind comes back from shopping, yells at the heart, binds and gags it to a nice lounge chair and allows guilt, failure, and remembrances of things past to sit in for a nice game of bridge. This is where you fear what you need most. If it’s a person you love, you fear appearing foolish in front of them. If it’s a sport, you fear being foolish in front of many, many people at the same time. And you begin to think: oh, no. What if I’m wrong? What if this stinks? What if my heart has blinders on, it’s had blinders on before, in fact it had dark heavy patches taped all over it. How can anyone love me if I don’t love myself? I mean, I love myself, there are just parts between the top of my head and the bottom of my feet that could use some improvement. I’m not demeaning myself, I have relatives who do that.
ACT IV: DISGUST (And the strange desire to eat everything in sight,
hide in your room, and watch old Gidget movies with friends from high school.)
Now comes that unavoidable time when you say to anyone who will listen: what the heck am I doing, anyway? If it’s a person you love, first you hate only their foulest inadequacies, then you start hating their good points as well. If it’s running you love, you start to hate hills, sidewalks, and bad weather, and soon anything that slightly resembles a bump, concrete, or a small breeze. I can’t believe I ever said I felt this way, I must have been dreaming! Wait, THIS IS NO DREAM, THIS IS A FILM NOIR MOVIE, and one of those really dark ones, too. I mean, this is love? This is what they tell you about when you’re 11 and naive? Or 32 and more naive?
ACT V: THE TRUTH (Love is hard work. And, sometimes, hard work can really hurt.)
Love is a game. If they didn’t tell you before, we will tell you now. Love is a game and if you play you either win, lose, or get ejected before the game is over. There are no ties. Maybe you’ll lose and learn some great meaningful answer from it all (like if it looks too good to be true, it is). It’s easy to love something when you don’t have to work at it. It’s harder when it asks something of you, you just might be afraid to give. GIVE IT ANYWAY. The heart is the most resilient muscle. It is also the stupidest. So if this love you’ve found is good to you, hold it, keep it, shout about it. If it isn’t, then maybe you should just become very good friends.
ACT VI: THE FINALE (Also known as the big whopperdoodle, or,
the most important part of this whole darn thing.)
So this is love, as demanding and nourishing and difficult as it can be, and as strong and wise as it makes you become. There is something to be gained from commitment. There are rewards for staying when you would rather leave. And there is something to be said for running up that hill when you would rather slide down it. And so you let love come perch upon your shoulder. And you do not turn it away. You do the tango. Just do it.
This is, of course, a Nike ad, one of 10 major ‘women-directed’ campaigns created by the firm Wieden & Kennedy (Nike’s advertising agency from 1990 to early 1997). Eight were image print campaigns, one was a product-only print campaign, and the other was for television.
Why do I – and so many other women – respond as powerfully as we do to this Falling in Love ad? Dr. Jean M. Grow, co-author with Tom Alstiel of the book Advertising Creative, helped to explain this phenomenon in the American Journal of Semiotics – Vol 22, No1-4 – 2006:
“The symbolic references here are rooted squarely in mythology about females’ experiences of love. The models’ eyes, their poses, their clothing (or lack there of) are all embedded with females’ cultural and social knowledge about lust, fear and truth.
“And by using the text as an intermediary, the creative agency engages in the reconstruction of the communal myth of love. The metaphors of love and fitness twist and turn.
“For example, in THE TRUTH: ‘Love is hard work. And, sometimes, hard work can really hurt…the heart is the most resilient muscle. It is also the stupidest.’ The visual signs come to life in the communal sharing of that experience, whether it’s love of self, love of the beloved, or love of sports and fitness.
“Nike becomes the purveyor of love – the lover signified.
“The power of this advertising lies in its mediated construction of community life. This is accomplished through storytelling in community. Storytelling is the single most binding force across these ten campaigns. The resonance of these ads is rooted in the creative agency’s ability to construct signifiers that reflect the cultural and social experiences of women. And when advertising seems to be addressed to ‘us,’ we are more likely to attend, perceive and process it deeply (Domzal and Kernan 1993).”
Dr. Grow also explains that the earliest rags to riches story of Nike’s founder Phil Knight – driving miles to track meets to sell shoes out of the trunk of his car, for example – is often cited as evidence of an auspicious yet humble root of greatness. She adds:
“Success despite obstacles has heroic connotations, a persistent advertising theme that Nike often returns to in their ads.”
Q: What’s your take on this ad campaign?