One of the globe’s largest corporations, Nike is known for their athletic shoes and apparel. In fact, “in 2014 the brand alone was valued at $19 billion, making it the most valuable brand among sports businesses. Today, Nike is one of the largest public companies in the world.” (Forbes, 2016). This year, the multinational corporation has jumped to 91 from 106 on the Fortune 500 list. (Fortune 500, 2016).
But the company was not always growing at this pace.
Despite being one of the top athletic companies of their time, Nike was not the first to introduce sporty products exclusively for women. “In 1981, Reebok, one of Nike’s competitors in the athletic shoe industry, chose to make women its primary target market” (Lucas, 2000). Reebok went on to earn profit that year while Nike experience a significant dip in sales. It was not until the 1990’s that Nike started marketing products for women. Nike used icons, symbols and indexical signs to create and develop a concept of community for an audience that was once uncatered, that is, the athletic female. Nike introduced women to the idea of being strong, athletic, in an approach that did not threaten their femininity. It was an accustomed option, a new identity that women could embrace without feeling as if they were stepping into an unknown territory. This way, Nike positioned itself as a brand that united women to the idea of stepping into a category, previously only dominated by men. (Grow, M. Jean. 2006).
Distinct from their first commercial aired in 1982 (Nike’s first television commercial – 1982, 1982), today Nike strategically creates advertisements specifically for female audiences, involving their intricate life experiences and hurdles and blending them in a way that appeals to all those women who strive to either enter sports or those who have already achieved credibility as a sportsperson. With numerous online and offline marketing campaigns to add to their brand value, their tagline ‘Just Do It’ has been named as one of the top five slogans of the 20th century. (Advertising Age, 1999). Nike allocates a huge part of their marketing for just women sports products. “Nike is bullish about what’s ahead, projecting $50 billion in sales by 2020 due to a global shift toward fitness and significant growth from the women’s business, Jordan brand, and e-commerce sales.” (Fortune 500, 2016). “The women’s business has proved lucrative for Nike, growing 20% in the fiscal year ended May 31. That’s twice the rate of its men’s business…” (Malcolm, 2015).
With a history in representing women who play sports, Nike has decades of background in advertising and marketing to this specific target segment. Making sure it stays current with the on-going cultural conversations, Nike has come up with an advertisement this year that vouches for their stand on embracing women of all shapes and sizes.
This Nike advertisement was first published on December 10th, 2014 on Bani J’s YouTube channel.
Although Bani J herself is paradigmatic to the idea of women bodybuilders, the complete video is a syntagmatic representation of how this independent woman lives her daily life and fearlessly follows her passion. The surface level reading of the advertisement is that of an independent woman choosing a healthy lifestyle, but a deeper reading reveals the acceptance of all kinds of body types and a sense of approval which is required by all humans and is regarded as a primitive need.
After a run, she posts her achievements on social media and makes yoga dates with her friends. She is one of the 83% of the millennials for whom “wellness is a daily, active pursuit.” (Goldman Sachs, n.d.). When compared to their predecessors, millennials are smarter eaters, regard smoking as more of a taboo and exercise more. This is the generation that uses applications on their phones, tablets or laptops to search for information to make informed diet-related decisions as well as to track their training data or diet history. This is also an area that they are willing to spend money in to get the best quality services. Understanding what millennials want, large corporation like Nike have “build their (marketing) strategy around digital-physical fusion.” (Rigby, 2014). In addition to this healthy side of her life as seen in the video, Bani J does not forget to have fun with her girlfriends every once in a while.
The video continues to show glimpses of her life while the background music is consistently peppy and upbeat with lyrics mostly repeating “don’t stop”. This makes the underlying theme of the video motivational as it showcases the life of Bani J. Words like “train”, “run”, “live” and “style” flash the screen representing the ‘signifier’, that is, the words that symbolize positivity, health, exercise and staying in fashion. Bani J’s lifestyle choices, body type, eating habits, work out regime, her choice of clothes and tattoos, all act as the signified while Nike’s campaign acts as the signifier that puts her muscular body type in high regard. Here, Nike positions itself as a brand of the current generation that embraces all women body types.
Despite what the message of the video is trying to send across to the masses, Bani J has faced significant backlash for her ‘muscular body’ from the viewers. People on social media have been quite vocal about their disapproval for a woman to have a ‘muscular body’, saying things like –
‘Lifting weights will make you look manly’, ‘You’re not a girly girl if you lift weights’, ‘I don’t lift weights because I just want to ‘tone up’, ‘Girls should only do cardio, lifting is for guys’, ‘So what steroids are you on’, ‘That’s way too much muscle.. For a woman’.
-(FirstPost, 2016; Hatch, 2016; The Hindustan Times, 2016; Baruah, 2016).
The irony of this Nike advertisement is that although it conveys freedom of choice to a woman to live her life the way she wants, even if she wants to be a bodybuilder (as in this case), the protagonist of the video received backlash for the very same reason.
Another Nike advertisement (as seen in figure 2) called ‘Da da ding’ presents itself as a perfect example of a video that is created to help develop a sense of acceptance for all body types in women. (Natividad, 2016).
The advertisement is able to speak to women who may be short, tall, muscular, slim, bulky or curvy and convince them that they are capable of achieving anything regardless of their body type. With the idea of showcasing a woman choosing to keep healthy by going to the gym, maintaining a fit body and proud of her muscles, the Nike advertisement was able to build on its brand with the reputation that it understands the issues of women just as it does the other sex. The advertisement speaks to women of all shapes and sizes, women who are self-conscious, women who would rather not choose a certain career in life because their body type did not conform to society’s idea of ‘normal’. With a majority of women facing body image issues, the audience the commercial caters to is a staggering number. I conclude this article with an epiphany that if huge corporations like Nike focus on developing marketing campaigns directing at creating positive body image and diminishing body image issues in women, the self-acceptance and happiness quotient in women will rise, giving way to a happier consumer population.
This was first put together as a semiotics textual analysis paper as a part of my coursework for master of marketing communications at the University of Melbourne.