Monday, August 27, 2007

Nike tries again

Nike unleashed its new ad campaign aimed at women on Saturday. It's called ATHLETE and features world-class athletes talking about what being an athlete means to them. The new campaign that consists of television commercials, an internet component, print ads, and billboards was created after Nike found out that female athletes are tired of not being taken seriously because they are women. To address the problem the modifier "women" is absent.

Sounds good, eh? Sure. It addresses a major problem in the discourse on women's sports where unmodified "athlete" equals male in most written and spoken coverage.

But like other Nike campaigns (i.e. If You Let Me Play), this one falls short of anything that might engender change. Because Nike is selling a false empowerment; an image of equality that doesn't come near addressing actual inequality in sport.

A forthcoming billboard that features Serena Williams with her arms crossed wearing a t-shirt that says ATHLETE (reproduced in the Times article) has the caption: are you looking at my titles? Well, no, you're positioned in such a way and along with the tagline it's impossible not to look at your breasts.

So Nike is still selling sex appeal. Not surprising--a previous campaign that featured only women's body parts also was selling sex under the guise of empowerment and self-love.

But this campaign fails to address what real inequality is. There is no mention about the fewer number of opportunities women have in comparison with men; how much less they receive in scholarship dollars; the amenities they do not receive that their male counterparts do; and of course the lack of coverage of women's sports.

Taking away "women" from women athletes and pretending that we're all the same--that it is just about skill as Alvina Carroll says in her portion of the ad--simply erases the problems. Language is crucial in these discussions, of course, but Nike and some of the athletes participating in the campaign, use it in such a way that the difference between male and female athletes is made obvious but there is no space in which to talk about how the difference has been constructed and used against athletic women and why.

I was particularly disappointed in former pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece's piece which begins: “Are boys bigger, stronger, faster? Yes." She goes on to say that this is not all that matters in sport. But the first part of her statement is damaging in that she presents this as an unequivocal truth and makes it seem that all boys are stronger, faster, and bigger than all girls. Yet Reece herself is bigger, stronger, and faster than many boys--and men!

The Times article only showed and reported on some of the comments made by the athletes for the campaign. I am interested in hearing and seeing what others have said and done.

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