“Falling In Love in Six Acts” – the best ad campaign ever

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:  

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?


31 thoughts on ““Falling In Love in Six Acts” – the best ad campaign ever

  1. You have to hand it to the brilliant (female) minds behind this campaign. I too have always loved this ad – thanks for reminding us about it here in such detail.

  2. I’m a triathlete who’s been buying and wearing Nikes for decades. I too absolutely LOVE this ad, I think mostly because it is so UN-ad-like.

  3. I remember this ad, and I loved it when it first came out. People have to remember that this kind of creative was unheard of back then. Thanks for the memories…..

  4. I’m glad to see that, even years later, this groundbreaking campaign still continues to be appreciated! A favourite of mine too.

  5. I still kept the ad too. I have moved 6 times and lived in 3 different states. I have gotten rid of many things….. but I still have this ad.

      • Me three! I kept my copy in a box for many years, and finally I framed it about five years ago and hung it on my bedroom wall, where it still lives. There is something about this ad that just speaks to my soul. Thanks!

  6. This ad was the topic of discussion for many weeks of a Self-exploration class I instructed at Rogue Community College. I still have the print ad in my paperwork. I appreciate your post so much. I am in a marketing program with the University of Phoenix and mentioned the ad in one of my discussion posts. Imagine my delight when I found it on the internet, allowing me to share it with my classmates. Many many thanks to you Carolyn!!!!

  7. Carolyn,
    As the writer of this Nike piece, and many of the Nike Women’s ads throughout the years, I can only say thank you for reprinting this, thanks for still liking it, and thanks for creating such an interesting, compelling blog.

    Who couldn’t admire a commitment to ethics in marketing, or otherwise? And dammit I’m not just saying that because of blown smoke. Honest. I stumbled here because a current client (male) keeps talking about how much he loved this insert, and how many copies of Vanity Fair he saved with it in it. Crazy. But in a very nice way. Anyway, thank you.

    • Wow. Really? You are my hero, Janet!! Thank YOU for coming up with such an iconic concept campaign. Many years ago, I read this about Phil Knight’s reaction to Falling in Love (in the book Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World by Donald Katz, 1994)

      “…Knight was equally displeased with the latest salvo from the aggressive women’s marketing team. ‘I don’t have a clue what it means,’ scoffed Knight. ‘I wouldn’t even want to guess…'”

      I actually wrote a letter to Knight when I read that, telling him basically what I’d written here about how much I and all of my (female) running friends loved this ad. He wrote me back (!) from Beaverton, saying: “While I don’t like to admit it, there are a lot of things I ‘don’t get’. I am glad you both ‘got’ it and liked it.”

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m so pleased that you found The Ethical Nag.

  8. 19 years ago I was a foreign exchange student in the US, I saw this ad in some magazine in the library, loved it and I bought one, think it was Vogue. A year passed, I had to go back home to Russia, and I took it with me only because of this ad – I think it’s beautiful. I still keep it somewhere at my parent’s place.

    Thank you for posting it here! It is always timely because if it’s not the hill you run now, then it’s a person you love or some self development – something’s going on all the time, in the same VI acts.

    Thank you!

    • So true, Tat – it’s “the hill or the person or some self-development”. It’s always something – hence the universal appeal of this ad.

  9. I’m so happy that you posted this ad!! I had saved it myself when I first saw it in 1993. It was lost in a move and I have been trying to get it back ever since. It’s such a powerful and beautiful piece!

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  11. I was cleaning out some papers in my basement last weekend and found this article that I tore out of Vanity Fair in 1993. I just read it the other day and loved it!

  12. Simply the best, the excellent use of language, words, style all contributed to understatement that delivers a very powerful message… I have even tried to transpose this ad in another setting for another industry but it wasn’t possible to re-create the magic..

    • Isn’t it intriguing how this ‘very powerful message’ has moved so many women? Can’t think of any other advertising that has compelled me to save a copy of it for almost 20 years!

  13. A good friend of mine who is about 10 years younger than I am is going through a heartbreak. This morning her text reminded me of this Nike ad that I too, like you, have saved a copy of since coming across it the winter quarter of my senior year in high school (Oct. 1993). My freshman year of college, I carefully arranged the the ad on my wall. I would freequently read it as I suffered through my own heartbreaks and moments of love.

    I can’t remember the last time I took time to read through it, but it is still with me, safely filed in a folder in my file cabinet. You can never know the power of an ad, until time has passed and you find it is secured and etched in your memory forever and easily accessible with the appropriate triggers.

    In my quest to share this powerful ad with my friend I prayed that someone in the universally-connected digital world was moved by this ad as much as I was, but went further and leveraged technology to preserve it so it can live beyond the paper version.

    I Googled and my prayer was answered. I am grateful. I will now repost this link to my fb & twitter feed to remind people of this very powerful and moving ad.

    • Hi Rochelle and thanks for sharing your story here, too. The writer of this ad, Janet Champ (see her comment, above) must be thrilled by so many of these comments about her work. I know of no other piece of advertising that women actually carry around with them – for YEARS! It’s astonishing.

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  15. This ad inspired me to go into Broadcast Journalism. Loved it then (I was 8 when I first saw it in my mother’s copy of Vogue) and still have it now. I travel for work and this ad follows me wherever I go.

    Love it ~ Love ~ Love it !!!!

    • Really? That is fantastic! Did you read Janet Champ’s comment (above)? She’s the writer of this ad. I’m sure she’d be thrilled to know her work had such an influence on your life!

      • Yes indeed it was the ‘story’ I recall reading and even today still relate to it. All her works are AMAZING!! Another favourite of mine is the ‘Marilyn Monroe ad – A women is often measured….’ Do you know if Janet does speaking engagements at all?

        Thanks and I love your blog as well.

  16. This is also my favorite ad of all time! I have the pages that I clipped from a magazine. I loved it! And I still love it and believe it!

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