In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Selling Truth: How Nike’s Advertising to Women Claimed a Contested Reality
  • Jean M. Grow (bio) and Joyce M. Wolburg (bio)

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 the powerful 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.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

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. The creative 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 of hindsight.

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 and experiences.

The Social Construction of...