Category Archives: Branding

‘The Last Game’: Nike’s simulated critique

I recall a comment made in a talk by Mark Fisher to the effect that if Capitalism doesn’t want to appropriate your cultural critique, it isn’t a critique worthy of the name. I was reminded of this line recently on seeing Nike’s World Cup-oriented promotional film ‘The Last Game’, produced by the communications company Wieden & Kennedy as part of a wider viral campaign. This 8-minute online animation, which features in the commercial breaks for World Cup broadcasts in truncated form – a trailer for an advert – contains and to some extent exorcises a prominent critique of modern football. Namely, that it is overly-reliant on an ideology of technological progression to the detriment of its fundamental accessibility and humanity, that its drive towards ever-increasing optimisation of elite performance is a betrayal of the game’s ludic spirit and critical proletarian open-endedness.

You’ll most likely have seen the clip by now, but just to recap: a Willem Defoe lookalike supervillain uses his presumably vast R&D budget to clone multiple copies of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, David Luiz and, more jarringly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribery and Tim Howard (saying nothing of Wayne Rooney’s persistent presence in these “world’s best” spots); the supposed superiority of these clones is based on a view of football which places undue privilege on analytics, like a hyperattenuated version of Billy Beane’s sabermetrics: real elite footballers take too many risks, so the reasoning goes, and need to be subjected to ruthless standardisation. Out go eccentricity, frailty and wilfulness and in come identikit pudding-bowl haircuts and grey bodysuits and a more economical rate of return. The result is a flat, drab, dystopian version of the ‘futuristic fantasy-land of zero-error gameplanning and cerebrative-calculationist techno-mastery’ that, for Ahmer Nadeem Anwer, represents one aspirational pole of football’s current historical situation. So Willem Dafoe goes on to reinscribe football in his boring image before, in a familiar deus ex machina scenario, the real Neymar, Rooney and so on are plucked from their new day jobs by “fat” Ronaldo and brought together for “one last game”, whose result will decide the fate of their sport.

It’s worth pausing a moment on the dystopian vision that the clip presents, and taking a brief detour into two works with which it is more-or-less comparable. A 1997 Reebok ad entitled Doppelganger: the true story of Ryan Giggs, hinges similarly on the idea of football’s future being stolen by cloning technology, only the aesthetics are markedly different. In an oddly prescient fantasy, Manchester City are controlled by a ruthless old moneybags with a knack for experimental financial doping (his cigar, top hat and name, Reginald Backhander, indicate that we’re dealing with a more tradition image of monopolisers here). Using spit from various legends of the game – George Best, Geoff Hurst, Lev Yashin – Backhander has produced a number of doppelgangers and signed them up to play in sky blue. In the ad’s syuzhet, Ryan Giggs has subsequently been captured and subjected to the same fate. What distinguishes this from the Nike spot is that the clones are monstrous idiots. When introduced to his original counterpart, the cloned Giggs stares gormlessly into space and farts. This sense of debasement is reflected in the animation’s lumpen clay textures. Biotechnology threatens football, but the stakes are construed quite differently.

There’s a similar sense of biotechnology’s capacity for, or perhaps tendency towards, grotesque results in Jon Bois’s two series of articles for SBNation, Breaking Madden and NBA Y2K. Here, the “edit” sections of popular American sports simulations – the Madden NFL and NBA Y2K series – provide a means for engineering freakish automata. In the finale of NBA Y2K, Bois constructs an oddly poignant scenario in which each successive annual draft from the 2013-14 NBA season onwards is peopled entirely with players whose stats and attributes are as low as the game will allow. The narrative that Bois constructs around the league’s subsequent dwindling fortunes over a twenty year period strikes a similar chord with The Last Game‘s depiction of football’s short, sharp slide into irrelevance, although it is much, much funnier.

Unlike Bois’s rather Beckettian piece, The Last Game ultimately has a happy ending, premised on Nike’s current strapline, “Risk Everything”. David Luiz’s risky goal-line clearance, Neymar’s dribble-with-selfie, Ronaldo’s rejection of a clear shot on goal with the quip ‘no, it’s too easy’: all these moments invite us to reflect on how football’s true appeal lies in its its lack of economy. Games are fundamentally wasteful, and the less terse the style of play, the closer football is to its roots. As Fat Ronaldo emotes to his charges, “you play like it’s a game; they play like it’s a job”. One could thus be forgiven for finding within this advert a critique of the game’s professionalisation (which critique would not – I say this as a fan of Rugby League – be unproblematic), before you take into account the spot’s central personages, its lingering glances at the latest Nike footwear, and this reading becomes less tenable. A critique which could serve to support interest in football’s grass-roots is instead mobilised as a means of reinvesting privileges in its moneyed stars. But it remains the case that The Last Game has assimilated or appropriated some of that sentiment which rails against excessive abstraction of football’s elements, against tactocracy, against the handling of football clubs as business ventures. And here Mark Fisher’s lines come into focus, alongside a passage from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 opus The New Spirit of Capitalism which beautifully explicates Fisher’s notion. Against all my academic better judgement, I quote them here at length, without comment, and by way of conclusion:

A second effect of critique is that, in opposing the capitalist process, it compels its spokesmen to justify that process in terms of the common good. And the more violent and convincing the critique for a large number of people, the more the justifications advanced in response will have to be combined with reliable mechanisms that guarantee a positive improvement in terms of justice. If those who speak for social movements make do, in response to their demands, with superficial declarations that are not followed by concrete actions (empty words, as they say); if the expression of finer feelings suffices to calm indignation, then there is no reason for improving the mechanisms that are supposed to render capitalist accumulation more in keeping with the common good. And when capitalism is obliged to respond positively to the points raised by critique, to try to placate it and maintain the support of its troops, who are in danger of listening to the denunciations, by the same gesture it incorporates some of the values in whose name it was criticized. The dynamic impact of critique on the spirit of capitalism here takes the form of a strengthening of the justifications and associated mechanisms which, while it does not challenge the principle of accumulation itself, or the need for profits, partially satisfies the critique and integrates into capitalism constraints that correspond to the points of most concern to its detractors. The price paid by critique for being listened to, at least in part, is to see some of the values it had mobilized to oppose the form taken by the accumulation process being placed at the service of accumulation, in accordance with the process of cultural assimilation referred to above.

Posted by Luke Healey

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Nike, Adidas and the Sports Branding World Cup

Over the last decade, major tournaments have become as much a showcase for sports brands and product placement as they have for the sport itself. Billboards are adorned with new footwear, energy drinks and more as brands attempt to tap into the national anticipation of a World Cup. The marketing usually employs exoticism based on the host nation to lure in the public combined with recognisable footballers.  This year, Lucozade have added a Brazilian twist with a new guava flavoured drink, while Pepsi’s latest ad sees Messi, Aguero et al. joshing around to a backdrop of favela-chic.

However, the major battle for brand supremacy is always fought between the superpowers of Nike and Adidas. They want the World Cup winners to be wearing their shirts on the podium, and scoring goals in their boots. Nike’s advertising went through something of a golden age around 15 years ago and their new material is usually worth watching. It probably started with the Seleçao at the airport ahead of France 1998. In 2002, the Scorpion Football campaign ushered in a new era of the mega-advert. Terry Gilliam was given a multi-million dollar budget to direct the memorable promo using the concept of a knock-out cage tournament. Finally, Thierry Henry’s “Sorry Boss” ad had an element of humour that few adverts are really able to capture.

In their new campaign, both Nike and Adidas have used a similar premise; this is very much the individual over the collective and the idea that one player is capable of lifting his side to the next level. This is part of football’s “cult of self”, where the players with the greatest will to succeed to do through a combination of ability and selfishness. Oddly, this style is reminiscent of an old Guinness advert in which a hurling player is promised a “hero’s welcome” if he scores the winning points.

Nike’s 2014 advert is superficial at best. A group of boys playing a game of park football, transform into their idols (Ronaldo, Neymar etc.) whilst showing off the latest sports range. It’s fun, if a little ridiculous, but lacks the originality of their back catalogue. The short ends with one of the boys scoring a penalty while the world watches on, as we are told emphatically to “Risk Everything”, Nike’s slogan for this summer. There’s not much more to it than that, other than reinforcing Nike’s traditional mantra that the winner will take it all.

This is disappointing because their ad for the last World Cup managed to imply this same message a lot more astutely. Vacuously entitled “Write the Future”, the ad shows a series of imagined World Cup moments with two possible outcomes. It illustrates the dichotomy between hero and villain that is created from individual on-pitch moments and also brings in some of the wider political context in which the game is played.

For example, a misplaced pass from Wayne Rooney that results in a Franck Ribery winner against England not only leads to personal misery but national catastrophe as the stock market crashes. There are hints at civil disorder, eerily similar to the 2011 London riots that would take place the following summer. The alternative version sees Rooney sprint back to tackle Ribery and, we can assume, lead England to glory. Rooney is knighted, the economy booms and a generation of babies are named ‘Wayne’. Thus we are reminded that football is a zero sum game in more ways than one; a players’ action will simultaneously catapult his own name into stardom whilst ruining his rivals’ reputation but these events also have the capacity to influence the nation in a manner of ways.

Adidas’ latest effort is captivating for similar reasons. Artistically it pays homage to the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, where the camera followed the player for 90 minutes.  This focus on a single player emphasises the pressures that rest on their shoulders. The main man in the campaign is Messi and it is hard to think of a player with more expectation to deliver at this World Cup, other than possibly Neymar. The ‘cult of self’ is also reinforced by the soundtrack. A new track entitled “God Level” by Kanye West (perhaps one of  the greatest egoists ever), hints at an elevation to god-like status that a World Cup-winner would enjoy.

Despite these common themes, the Adidas ad seems more pertinent because it is framed with a measure of socio-political awareness. As Messi arrives in Brazil, he is greeted with abuse from a young group of boys and a gaggle of journalists; the reception from locals and the media alike will be hostile. As the beat in West’s track builds tension with a whining crescendo that sounds like a siren, a flurry of on-pitch clips flash across the screen until a brief scene shows mounted police keeping a group of Brazilian protesters at bay. It is this image that is most intriguing because it shows Adidas have acknowledged that this World Cup might be greater than what takes place simply in the stadia.

We go into this tournament with a sense of unknowing. To what extent will this undercurrent of unrest bubble over the surface once the World Cup is up and running? Would a Brazilian triumph be able to unite the nation and quell some of the protests? Neither Nike nor Adidas has an interest in making an overtly political statement ahead of the big event and their primary concern is market supremacy. However, these corporations are now able to garner so much influence through football as an ultra-globalized form of mass culture, they may feel some sense of paternalist responsibility. Judging by their latest efforts, it seems like Adidas have considered this to a greater degree than Nike.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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