Storytelling is in Nike’s DNA. The Nike mission statement is “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete.” Bill Bowerman, Nike co-founder, clarifies, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” Nike glorifies the individual, the spirit of the rogue athlete running hard after a goal. Their ads typically profile individual athletes and their stories, but sometimes they tell the unknown stories of amateur athletes. They rarely mention Nike products, but they do sell the brand identity associated with the product. Of course, Nike cannot target everyone with a body with their ads, but they do target those who would be inspired by an athlete’s pursuit of excellence or a non-athlete’s resolve to “Just Do It” despite their inexperience.

Nike released a commercial ad four years ago, during the London Olympics, of Nathan Sorrell, with the title “Find Your Greatness“. Tom Hardy’s British accent narrates Nathan’s jog down an empty, country road:

“Greatness is just something we made up. Somehow we’ve come to believe greatness is a gift reserved for a chosen few. For prodigies. For superstars. And the rest of us can only stand by watching. You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. Not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We’re all capable of it. All of us.”

The ad appealed to ethos, challenging our tendency to stereotype obese people and attribute greatness to the few on the Olympic stage. The ad created much controversy, as some believed Nike glorified obesity and others thought Nike shamed obese people further, suggesting inactivity is the opposite of greatness. Some saw it as powerful, moving, and inspiring, still others thought it encouraged distance running to the detriment of Nathan’s health. Others were more concerned about Nathan himself, following his fitness journey, and how Nike sought him out. Runner’s World notes that Nathan told his local newspaper that he vomited in a ditch while the commercial was filmed, although that article has since been removed. A year later, sources reported Nathan’s weight loss of 30 pounds and plans to lose thirty more. Has Nathan’s greatness increased as a result? Either way, Nike has wisely chosen to not claim credit for it.

However inspiring Nike’s ad was meant to be, its altruism ends at the beginning of its product offering. How altruistic is it for Nike to suggest obese people run, in no less than their fitness wear and shoes? Unfortunately, Nike wants us to find our greatness…while wearing their products. Is that too harsh a critique on an athletic wear brand? I don’t think so. Nonetheless, the ad created dialogue around the issues of obesity, what defines greatness, and what Nike’s intentions really were.

Marketers appealed to ethos, to our desire to achieve greatness even while ordinary. That message isn’t immoral, nor harmful, but Nike’s attempt to sell greatness through this 232 pound twelve year old feels exploitative. Nike should keep telling stories, but ones that are true, not manipulated or contrived.

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