Selling Truth: How Nike's Advertising to Women
Claimed a Contested Reality
Jean M. Grow
Joyce M. Wolburg
This study tracked the evolution of three "big ideas" in Nike's
advertising to women from 1990 to 2000: empowerment, entitlement,
and product emphasis. It also takes a longitudinal look at the
process from which the ads were created and the way the creative
team addressed the constraints upon that process. Based on oral
histories taken from key informants employed at Nike and its two ad
agencies during that decade, it is the story of how the creative
team produced advertising that challenged the media norms affecting
the roles of women associated with the institution of sports.
Though their creative strategy was simply to speak the truth as
they saw it, it frequently pitted them against the executives at
Nike in a battle over whose reality would be depicted.
If you let me play sports, I will like myself more; I will
have more self-confidence, if you let me play sports.
—Nike advertisement, "If You Let Me Play"
"It wasn't advertising. It was truth," claimed Janet Champ,
chief copywriter on Nike's women's advertising during the 1990s.
"We weren't selling a damn thing. Just the truth. And behind the
truth, of course, the message was brought to you by Nike." Champ
was describing the creative process behind the award-winning ad,
"If You Let Me Play,"part of thepowerful
Participation campaign that featured teenage girls on a
playground talking about the meaning of sports in their lives). Her
remark illuminates the defiance that typified that creative process
but also shows the personal meaning she derived from having created
the ad, which we will explore in depth through this article.
If You Let Me Play (print and TV versions).
Few ad campaigns have been as successful as Nike's late
twentieth century advertising to women, even though it was also a
bold challenge to stereotypes about women in American culture.
Thecreative team of copywriter and art director accomplished what
many agency professionals find nearly impossible: challenging the
media norms for depictions of gender, meeting the marketing and
sales goals for the brand, overcoming the distrust of the client,
and extending a highly successful men's brand to women. This
evaluation of the advertising process first addresses the
construction of gender and the role of advertising, and then tells
the story of the creative team's groundbreaking struggle to
construct a new reality in Nike's advertising to women from 1990 to
2000 from the team members' own points of view. As they reflect on
their work, the creatives tell their stories with the added benefit
This study focuses on Nike women's advertising from 1990 to
2000, using oral history. Long interviews were conducted with key
informants in Nike's advertising and marketing department; art
directors and copywriters from Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency that
began the campaign; and art directors and copywriters from Goodby,
Silverstein & Partners, the agency that took over the campaign
in 1997. Interviews were conducted on location at Nike headquarters
in Beaverton, Oregon, and at Wieden + Kennedy, whereas interviews
from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners were conducted by
telephone. Although the participants were told they would be
identified by pseudonyms in published articles to maintain
confidentiality, three creatives from Wieden + Kennedy offered the
use of their real names: copywriter Janet Champ and art directors
Charlotte Moore and Rachel Manganiello.
We asked the participants to think about the creative process,
the creative ideas that emerged, and how the process unfolded. We
also asked participants how their own personal relationships and
experiences came into play during the creative processes, how the
interactions between the ad agency and Nike affected their work,
what constraints they dealt with, and to what extent their creative
work was driven by market research versus personal relationships
The Social Construction of Gender in Sports
Although sports may appear to be an institution with equal
access for both men and women in the United States, research
supports a gender divide that has traditionally viewed sports as a
domain for men. A subtle but powerful example is the treatment of