World: Analysis - Adidas scales new heights to create 'impossible' campaign

In its effort to better vertical football, Adidas conceived a sport.

Where do you go after wowing the crowds with a gravity defying football match played against a billboard backdrop 12 storeys high?

You go higher.

Adidas' follow-up to its award-winning vertical football stunt is gunning not only for literal heights - it also hopes to turn the attention-grabbing marketing event into an actual sport.

While the 2003 stunt involved two footballers suspended on bungee cords dribbling a ball across a billboard, impossible sprint is a series of races up the side of skyscrapers in Osaka, Japan, and Hong Kong.

The "world's first vertical track event" has "racers" suspended on cables scaling 100 metres up the 32-storey sides of buildings decked out with eight regulation lanes. The event was developed by TBWA\Japan and executed with the support of Carat and Adidas.

Cash prizes of up to $10,000 were offered to athletes competing in a series of heats, semis and finals spread out over the course of three weekends from mid-August. Around 40 athletes in the two cities completed the 100-metre distance.

Adidas has ambitions for the impossible sprint to go beyond a marketing event and to become an extreme sport like snowboarding and rock climbing.

"We want to invent an entirely new sport and want it to become part of the X Games, an event for rock climbers, cavers, adventurers and those on the exciting edge of sport. There are the people with the background and passion to excel," Christophe Bezu, the Adidas senior vice-president for Asia-Pacific, says.

The vertical race was part of Adidas' "impossible is nothing" campaign, which kicked off in March. Besides conveying the lofty message of "inspiring people to challenge the limits of the physical world, improve constantly, achieve, excel and redefine what is possible", the stunt was also timed to coincide with the Olympics.

"It isn't our intention to keep hanging people off the side of buildings. The Olympic Games were taking place on the opposite side of the world and we really wanted to make the games more relevant to people in Asia," John Merrifield, the TBWA\Japan chief creative officer, says.

The Omnicon Group network clinched several awards - including the Grand Clio and a Cannes Lion - for vertical football.

Although less eye-catching, the impossible sprint drew coverage from around the world with a VMS monitoring report citing more than 50 separate mentions in international and regional media.

Merrifield calculates that the event generated publicity worth $50 million on the basis of an investment of $80,000 in both markets. This compares with the estimated $150 million in free publicity created by the vertical football event.

The impossible sprint is in a good position to make the crossover to an extreme sport, because it is very telegenic. What's more, the 100-metre upward dash can produce winners and losers in the way the vertical football stunt cannot.

Adidas' hopes of having invented a new sport have been raised after it was approached by the extreme sports organiser behind the Gravity Games, a US-based sports, music and lifestyle festival.

"From what I can tell they are very keen to establish the impossible sprint as a permanent fixture," Bezu says, adding that Adidas will be in contact with the X Games sports channel as well.

If the impossible sprint makes the successful transition to spectator sport, it will not be the first time the brand has changed the way sport is played.

"Adidas has been a part of the Olympic movement ever since our founder, Adi Dassler, produced his first pair of sprint spikes for an Olympic athlete back in 1928. No other brand has been so closely associated with so many athletes over so many years as Adidas," Bezu says.

The impossible sprint has garnered accolades from industry players in the region.

"It's a great media idea. It is visible, it is striking. In any sports campaign, the important thing is to establish the attitude of the brand. Nike did it first and Adidas is starting to build its brand attitude quite evocatively," the Leo Burnett regional planning director, John Woodward, says. Leo Burnett handles mainland China's dominant sports brand, Li Ning.

One of the spectators who witnessed last year's vertical football event in Tokyo was the Interactive OgilvyOne Worldwide creative director, Don Kratzer. He is also impressed by TBWA's follow-up.

"It was nice that they had scaled up from just a stunt to actually having a competition. Impossible sprint also fits well within the 'impossible is nothing' Adidas brand campaign," Kratzer says.

Nonetheless, he notes that there was "a slight tinge of being under-whelmed by the fact that it involved doing something high up and vertical as before".

"Once again one has to wonder what they will do next. If it's just another sport turned sideways, we'll know they're flogging a dead horse. Underwater basketball anyone?" Kratzer quips.


The Adidas "impossible is nothing" campaign was devised by TBWA\San Francisco, with work split between TBWA\Chiat\Day (print) and 180 Amsterdam (TV).

TV campaigns 180 Amsterdam has produced six spots in the campaign, the first three of which won gold Lions at Cannes:

'Long run' Muhammad Ali's morning run is recreated with an entourage that includes David Beckham and the swimmer Ian Thorpe.

'Laila' Ali's daughter spars with her father in a tour-de-force visual effects spot.

'Stacy' The ex-skateboarder Stacy Kohut shows he still rules the half-pipe despite being in a wheelchair.

'Jesse' World 100m champion Kim Collins races against Jesse Owens in his famous 1936 100m win.

'Nadia' Nadia Comaneci is joined by Nastia Liukin in her perfect-ten routine on the asymmetric bars.

'Haile' The runner Haile Gebrselassie takes on the seemingly impossible challenge of beating himself.

'Stunts' Local TBWA offices handle ambient and stunt work.

'Vertical football' TBWA\Japan won Best Use of Outdoor in the Cannes Lions Media category by suspending two footballers 12 storeys up.

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