METACOMMUNICATION & NIKE
It is obvious that Nike's success in building up the popularity and value of their swoosh icon has been based on how they have presented celebrity superstars -- such as Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, André Agassi, and Michael Johnson -- whom they have under contract. But Nike has amplified the value of their image by the attitude they project, and the way in which they address viewers. The attitude they project is bound up in the ways that Nike metacommunicates with viewers.
In Nike's ads, a recurring subtext concerns the relationship between the advertiser and the viewer. Indeed, sometimes the subject of the commercial is not the shoe at all, or what it can do, but rather a self-reflection about the world of other television ads that daily assault viewers with a mantra of consumption based on false assumptions. The most conspicuous false assumption that ads position viewers to make concerns the suggestion that products can make the viewer equivalent to the model (or spokesperson) shown in the ad. This is one of those assumptions that most viewers know to be untrue, but whose seductive powers repeatedly lure them back.
Being positioned to play out this assumption for the benefit of advertisers eventually prompts anger among a significant percentage of the viewing audience. Nike ads recognize that anger, and its correlate, resistance to listening, and have built their approach to advertising around denying such assumptions. Hence, a key relationship in Nike ads is between Nike as an advertising voice and the spectator's sense of identity. This relationship takes place primarily as metacommunication.
Nike's style of metacommunication is most evident in their ads that project "irreverence," but it is no less important in ads that convey a sense of the "inspirational." Copywriters at Wieden & Kennedy, Nike's ad agency, routinely comment that their overarching aim is to produce commercials that treat the viewer with "respect" as an "intelligent peer." They resent, along with their audience, the insulting way most ads speak at viewers. Nike's style of metacommunication was revealed to us when we interviewed a Wieden & Kennedy copywriter about an ad called "A Time of Hope" (see chapter three). When asked why W&K had used heavily scratched high-contrast film sandwiched between the primary images, he replied that it was no big deal. He merely wanted to avoid having the ad "feel like a generic Pepsi commercial with a seamless sensibility." The scratches signified to him, and to viewers, a "rawer, edgier" tone and a more jarring textual climate. What was to him an unremarkable moment, was to us a powerful example of metacommunication at work.