No doubt the first of many campaigns that will intuitively tap into the spirit of the 2012 London Olympics now slowly emerging on the horizon, Nike’s new ‘Make Yourself’ campaign for its women’s apparel is the first out of the starting blocks. Shot by the legendary Annie Leibovitz, the full campaign features a whole slew of fit women – one, for example, is not an athlete but instead a dancer- drawn from all over the world. They include a surfer, Australian Laura Enever; a hurdler, Perri Shakes-Drayton from the UK, US Football Goalkeeper Hope Solo; the French Open tennis champion, Chinese Li Na; the Algerian- French dancer Sofia Boutella and Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova. Interestingly enough, the only bone fide Olympian featured in the campaign is the American athlete Allyson Felix.
This is perhaps because the campaign, at most, taps into the overall enthusiasm and feelings of goodwill that arise from the phenomenon of the Olympics rather than trying to position itself as some kind of poster campaign for the Olympic Games. Hence, the international representation is very much in the spirit of the universal positive regard that lies at the heart of the Olympic phenomenon but it is not the primary motivation behind the campaign that is much more clearly aimed generally at women. And that’s probably a very canny thing for a number of reasons, least of all because it never falls foul of the notoriously beady eye of the International Olympic Committee, ever on the lookout for anyone eager to exploit the Olympics in contravention of its staunchly non-commercial ideology.
On a more pragmatic level, Nike has also probably keenly observed that many campaigns that aim for a purist association with competitive sports often have a limited appeal. Bluntly, the physical perfection that such athletes achieve simply feels beyond the reach of many normal punters. Thus, the ‘Make Yourself’ campaign is positioned within Nike’s familiarly exhortative approach that uses a feel-good positive encouragement to urge anyone to take up the opportunity to improve her well-being and fitness.
A key part of a welcoming psychology in which the only comparison should be with oneself rather than top athletes is essential. And, in this sense, the choice of Annie Leibovitz to shoot the campaign is an excellent one. Leibovitz took the rather stodgy tradition of portraiture and reinvented it for the rock ‘n roll generation in magazines like Rolling Stone at the height of its power in the early 1970’s. Rapidly recognised for her quirky and creative portraiture, Leibovitz rapidly become the photographer that all top celebrities wanted to capture them for eternity. Hers is a rare talent that manages to ensure that the sitter always looks good without ever losing a sense of the real person beneath, a skill that lies at the heart of powerful portraiture. Annie Leibovitz’s sharp eye and technical competence is so good at doing this that practically no door remains unopened to her. She has, for example, even photographed HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
This seemingly small detail is actually a vital ingredient in Nike’s new campaign. There is no doubt that what is presented to us is a series of stunning photographs, indeed, even images that inspire a certain level of aspiration and admiration for these seriously fit women. However, each is also unmistakably a portrait. The character and personality of each of the campaign faces seeps through in what is almost the antithesis of ‘modelling’ where, fundamentally, one’s personal identity is actually encouraged to take a back seat. The levels of playful quirkiness vary between the individual portraits. Some undeniably foreground play and fun whilst others have an almost tongue-in-cheek rendition of the iconography of body worship and the idolatry of the athlete. Leibovitz’s eagle eye leads us down many routes, here casting a skeptical eye over Leni Riefenstahl’s legacy; there perhaps even making subtle references to the famous works of women body builders by her heavyweight peers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
All in all, it’s a consummate realisation of a school of advertising that works well for sportswear giants like Nike where the individual details of the products are far less important than association with the lifestyles and values exuded by the brand. And what could feel better than the encouraging and motivating voice of a coach or mentor reminding a woman of her power of self-actualisation?