OPINION: Mills on ... Nike

As marketing success stories go, there are few to touch Nike. In 30 years or so it has risen from an obscure, niche manufacturer of running shoes to a global powerhouse churning out everything from football shirts to tennis shorts to golf shoes. Its ambition knows no bounds, and its ability to co-opt sporting institutions and icons to its cause - agenda might be a better word - is formidable.

Few sports, or individuals, are immune to its touch. Some might say, however, that getting into bed with Nike was like cosying up to a 700-pound gorilla: you better know what you're doing.

That much of its success is due to its relationship with Wieden & Kennedy is indisputable. The pair go hand in hand and, just as you can't mention Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers, so it is with agency and client.

Over the years, the two have produced a fantastic body of work, whether it's the famous "park life" ad on Hackney Marshes, Pete Sampras playing an impromptu game of street tennis in New York, the Brazilian football team having a kickabout in the airport departure lounge or runners pushing each other into puddles. Sometimes playful, sometimes spectacular, invariably edgy and almost always worth talking about.

What's interesting about Nike the brand is the way it has managed, Janus-like, to keep its edgy, on-the-street feel while playing the global corporate game - whether through its ties to Manchester United, the Brazilian football federation or constantly pushing new stuff through the product pipeline.

Somehow, like people who maintain different sets of friends who never meet, it keeps the two worlds separate.

Its latest campaign, launched two weeks ago (Campaign, 28 February), demonstrates this almost schizoid personality. It features a new animated character, Stickman, who pitches up in the middle of a Los Angeles street basketball court, where he joins in the game and proceeds to dazzle with his clever tricks, juggling and - well, knock me down with a feather - the inevitable slam dunk. Another ad uses the same idea, only this time we're in Paris and it's an urban variation on the jumpers-for-goalposts routine. In LA he takes on and beats three NBA stars, and in Paris it's members of Paris Saint Germain, one of whom (bastard!) is Seaman's nemesis, Ronaldinho.

You may be wondering what it's for: the answer is a new range of sporting apparel, although I only know that having read the story in Campaign, and I defy anybody else to figure out what Nike is selling just by watching the ad. Does the world need another range of Nike hoodies and tops? Of course not, but that's what retailers need and so that's what they get.

Technically dazzling though it is - but when wasn't a Nike ad a visual treat? - there's something soulless and calculating about all this. How many times have we seen Nike and Adidas using the idea of an unknown whizz-kid turning up and blowing everybody's socks off with his sporting prowess?

Add in an inner-city football pitch or basketball court for some "urban edge" to keep the all-important level of street-cred up, and off you go.

It's boring, boring, boring. In the application of cliche and formula, Nike has become the Procter & Gamble of sports goods advertising wherein the slam dunk is the equivalent of the obligatory hair-tossing shot in a shampoo ad.

All this is a shame because we know, somewhere, Nike has the capacity to produce brilliant, human, different work. It's done it countless times.

We're just not seeing it here. Perhaps that's because, in the battle for Nike's soul, Corporate Man is currently edging out Sporting Man.

Dead cert for a Pencil? To a certain kind of jury.

File under ... R for repetitive.

What would the chairman's wife say? "It's time to find another cliche."

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