The Olympics are always a Schlockfest, but these ads are really great
For athletes, the Olympic Games are the highlight of their careers. For everyone else, they’re a way to show off national pride, a chance to become a chair expert, and of course, a commercial. There is no unbranded portion of the Olympics, with 84 official national and international sponsors who have collectively paid about $ 2 billion to the International Olympic Committee to distribute at every moment of the Games.
Advertisers see the Olympics as a Super Bowl-like opportunity that spans weeks instead of one night to show off their best storytelling and emotional manipulation skills. The challenge this year is to balance the scale of the event with the unprecedented nature of the circumstances surrounding it. For most brands, it’s like COVID never existed. To others, attempts to make meaningful social statements sound general and insincere. “They still sound true to brands like Nike, which have always been inspiring all kinds of athletes and embracing social issues in the process,” says Brian Sheehan, a professor from Syracuse. “Not so much for others.” He cites brands like Comcast and Oreo who successfully use the joy, diversity and fun of the Olympic Games while staying on the brand at the same time.
But amid the muddled messages of that strange year, there were still some clear notices. Here are my five favorite ads from the Tokyo Games.
Nike “The New Fairies”
On the same day that 13-year-old Brazilian Rayssa Leal won the silver medal in the first-ever women’s Olympic skateboard street event, Nike launched a new spot celebrating her style and talent. But this is not a rah-rah, flag-waving affair. Instead, it’s a Mary Poppins mix of live action and 2D animation that adds a charming nod to both a skater’s imagination and her youth, while spreading the gospel that skateboarding is for everyone. Fun, cool and free of clichés.
Dick’s sporting goods “There it is”
On her face, the retailer’s ad cheekily strokes the antiquated image of the female ideal by juxtaposing strong, powerful and talented female athletes with Johnny Desmond’s 1955 tune “Miss America”. The brand balanced the uncertainty surrounding the games by creating an ad that matched the Olympic mood, but could also be placed anywhere and anytime. “We saw it as bigger than the Olympics,” Chief Marketing Officer Ed Plummer told me. “It matters whether the Olympics take place or not.”
Simone. ️ pic.twitter.com/hwoV6HWN85
– Athleta (@Athleta) July 27, 2021
Shortly before the Games began, Simone Biles left Nike to sign a new advertising deal with Athleta. Of course, to celebrate this move, the brand created a commercial that kicked off a week before the opening ceremony. Its main message, however, was much quieter and definitely less planned.
After Biles withdrew both the women’s team final and the singles all-round final, citing mental health issues, it became a massive media story. Traditionally, an athlete’s value to a brand is results. But by 2021, they will also be considered three-dimensional people, and these other aspects have become almost as important to their popularity and cultural cache. Athleta clearly knows this, and instead of trying to get all of the attention, it sent Biles a gesture of support illustrating their commitment. Sure, there is a logo on the front and center, but there are no signs of a hard sell.
Channel 4 “Super. Human.”
The British broadcaster has won a shelf full of awards for its Paralympic commercials for both the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio Games. It’s a lot to do justice to, but this year’s spot doesn’t disappoint. It’s a fresh, fun take on the brand’s enduring “superhuman” theme, and another welcome focus on athletes who tend to get a much smaller media spotlight. Score added for the soundtrack, a seriously deep cut in the form of a catchy remake of “So You Wanna Be A Boxer” from the 1976 Bugsy Malone movie.
Beats by Dre “Sha’Carri Richardson”
The Tokyo Games were meant to be a cultural coming-out party for Sha’Carri Richardson, introducing the stylish American sprinter sports fans around the world. But just weeks before the Games, she was banned from competition after testing positive for marijuana. Her suspension was a hot topic of discussion, and before that controversy subsided, Beats made this spot during the NBA Finals and during the Olympics, which she was prevented from attending. She stood in the running blocks, exercising alone at night while listening to Kanye West’s new track, “No Child Left Behind,” from the previously unreleased album Donda.
For Beats, this was a feat that combined one of America’s most up-to-date athletes with one of its most polarizing artists. Gold medal in pop culture advertising.