We Are What We Wear

In the late 20th century American, the cultural capital of corporations has replaced many human forms of capital. As we buy, wear, and eat logos, we become the henchmen and admen of the corporations, defining ourselves with respect to the social standing of the various corporations. Some would say that this is the new form of tribalism, that in sport corporate logos we ritualize and humanize them, we redefine the cultural capital of the corporations in human social terms. I would say that a state where culture is indistinguishable from logo and where the practice of culture risks infringement of private property is a state that values the corporate over the human. (Susan Willis, 1993: 132-133 per Cole, 1995: 365)

Have we come to this? In light of the rash of killings over Nike shoes in 1991 and the continued market dominance of the brand, clearly Nike exerts a significant social and psychological force on the American consumer. It is my assertion that Nike appeals to a buying public that treats fitness as a worthy individual goal which simultaneously imparts social identification. The question remains, how? Nike ads, when first released were "treated like new plays or books" (Katz, 1994:153). Through semiotic analysis of a number of Nike advertisements, I hope to uncover at least the clues to Nike's pull on public imagination. (The Media and Communications Site concerning semiotic analysis informs this discussion and stands as a great study aid and interesting read)

Unlocking Nike's Ads

I plan to work with a small number of Nike ads that speak to the entire genre, though a thorough analysis would include the Air Jordan series, the women-oriented "Empathy"campaign, and All Conditions Gear ads to name a few. I hope to incorporate a wider variety of Nike advertisements at a later date.

Nike's ads, like any other business's, require interpretation. Some of this reading goes on at the conscious level, some unconsciously. As opposed to extremists on either side of the interpretative question, I fall most nearly to the constructivist point of view in that I view meaning as an interplay between text and the reader. Chandler writes, "Texts are full of indeterminacies which require the reader's active interpretation. We must draw not only on our knowledge of language, but on our knowledge of the world." Thus, readers of advertisements bring with them a surface knowledge of the language as well as a set of preconceived ideas about how to relate the ad to themselves. These mental templates are known as schemata. Examples of these may include ideas of the rebel, corporate businessman, or avant-garde artist as well as Southern Baptist churches, universities, or mechanics' garages.

Ads work on a variety of different levels including, but not limited to, sign typology, paradigmatic meaning, psychological appeals, emotion, roles, values/beliefs, and knowledge. Again, the impact of an ad comes from the interplay between these various aspects of make-up and the reader's own notions about him/herself and the world.

So, taking the "Test Your Faith" ad as our first example: Straight off, the reader finds him/herself thrust into the schema of religious worship. Not only must the viewer literally look up to the runner, but he/she receives the imperative to "Test your faith." The runner pictured appears in the midst of a run and rests easy in the knowledge of his own god-like attention to fitness. Likewise, the runner has no identity beyond his role in the ad. That is, we cannot see his face, giving him an added element of the unknown divine. The reader feels cowed looking from a subordinate position at the figure of the runner in his element. The text implies a direct connection between exercising (in this case, running) and religious questioning. (cp. Nike and the Sanctification of Sport in the History section of this project) The writers seem to suggest an element of transcendence possible in exercise, as well as the need to continually question who we are in relation to our gods and what we hold most sacred. For the runner in the ad, exercise is the object of sanctity.

Yet the reader might inhabit a different role by placing themselves as the runner in the ad itself. Transported from reading a magazine to the middle of a run, filled with the sensual pleasure of using one's body, the reader identifies him/herself as the 'tester of faith.' And finding the purity of exercise within the soul, the reader can accept a measure of hearty self-congratulation.

A slightly dissimilar angle for interpretation would be to imagine the set of causes or drives that propelled the runner in the ad from his home to the streets for a run. Recall Bauman's statement of drive for fit bodies. The measure of the individual in contemporary society rests upon the extent to which they exercise their body. Seeing the runner engaged in a long run should impel the reader to imagine their own set of values and desires. What would it take to get them on the streets for a run? How important is exercise to that person? The ad places fitness as a top priority and suggests that the reader must acknowledge the fitness culture, even if they do not take an active part.

Finally, the gritty gray and white tones of the advertisement insinuate a harsh world in which running becomes an escape. Reading the ad, perhaps themselves members of such a life, viewers will immediately seek the release and redemption that running and exercise offer.

Moving on to another example of running advertising, we look at "You either ran...": Again placed in the dichotomy between athletes and spectators, the reader need only answer one question. Have I run today? Respondents will fall neatly into two categories and can take with them the requisite set of emotions that come with their answer. Identification and affiliation with others, approval, self-worth, and pride all spring from the answer 'yes.' Meanwhile, shame (first and foremost) and ostracization from the 'in-crowd' leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those answering 'no.'

Placing the runner against a neutral background gives the appearance of a void in which must be placed the sum of viewers' athletic endeavors. They will be judged and given admittance or refusal to the world that Nike's runner inhabits. The world of the ad is composed of little more than the runner and the bland sky behind him. For the reader, the added force of the text--almost taunting, by now--makes the point clear. You must belong.

Katz asserts that "Nike's ads in track and field and running [magazines] have long been acknowledged to be as much a way to support the sport's means of communication as ways to sell gear" (119). While this may be letting Nike off a bit easy, the advertisements above demonstrably speak to an elite group of readers well-versed in the intricacies of running.

All these factors tie into the ongoing cultural formation of the fit body discussed in this project's Fitness Culture section. During the late 1980s, Nike attained a relative saturation of the U.S. market for athletic goods and apparel, leaving Nike executives wondering 'where do we go from here?' Appealing to a higher sense of excellence (arete, to borrow another Greek word married to the philosophy of Nike), Nike hoped to inculcate a sense of individual accomplishment possible in sport as well as play into that very same sense already budding in the breasts of consumers. Herein lies another example of the indivisibility of the fitness culture and Nike's place in it. Phil Knight on marketing: "What Nike does well is to interpret what people are doing, what they're interested in, and we've been lucky enough to align ourselves completely with what we perceive" (Katz, 1994: 150). But one should not imagine Nike as a mere reflector of popular culture, as the advertising examples above relate. In fact, Jensen (Advertising Age, 12/16/96) imagines Nike's marketing formula to consist of the integration of the swoosh into the cultural fabric of sports and harnessing of its emotional power.

Originally, Knight hated ads and spent much more on promotions. For example in 1976, only $100,000 were allocated for advertising versus $310,000 for promotion (Strasser & Becklund, 1994: 239). Knight and the other Nike executives knew well "the importance of owning athlete-endorsed apparel...to youth for the sense of cultural power and belonging it imparted" (Wilson & Sparks, 1996: 415). And who can deny the success of such long-term promotional efforts as the Nike Air Jordan campaign ? Such a phenomenon places the real cultural power in individuals (MJ) and the corporations that sponsor them (Nike) and "reflects the position of athletic apparel as an icon for 'culture of consumption" (Dyson 1993 per Wilson & Sparks, 1996). By the mid-80s, Nike athletes were becoming a special brand of celebrity, with a unique pull on popular imagination, often engendered by their own line of athletic shoes. By promoting the brand in high schools and colleges, Nike looks to actively influence younger buyers. Said Sonny Vacarro, a former Nike employee, "The kids will become the messengers" (Katz, 1994: 153). Americans under 25 make up one-half of Nike's sales and 70% of the money spent on footwear by boys between 13 and 18 came in the form of Nikes. "The shoes were how the boys felt about life and they had been magically ingrained with their secret aspirations" (ibid.). Wearing a pair of athletic shoes endorsed by a celebrity player signifies the almost the same status that having a fit body does. What is more, the advertising of Nike actively seeks to "diminish the distance between the greatest athletes and those who play and exercise for fun" (ibid.: 136). In short, Air Jordans allow any and everyone to "Be Like Mike."

With the statement that Nike "tries to capture the passion and even the moral force" of sport and reify it in a pair of shoes (Katz, 1994: 86), the reader can begin to understand the ideology that goes toward selling a pair of Nikes. Tying into the religious matrix once more, Nikes become iconic signifiers of faith, personal health, and social inclusion.

Nike proffers cultural belonging, the promise of individual athletic achievement, and dreams of parity with the world's greatest athletes. Operating on a series of different levels of human understanding, Nike's advertisements actively seek the emotional response necessary to sell shoes, but more importantly, to propagate and sustain the fitness culture.


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