August 25, 2021 - 1:47pm

In the 1990s, as sports writer Ethan Strauss remembers it, Nike ads were internationally popular, culturally relevant “generational touchstones”. Written by the Wieden+Kennedy firm, these miniature movies were “often creatively daring but also quite funny”. Consider 1996’s “Good vs Evil” where a team of footballers face off against Satan’s demonic soccer army.


Nike, according to Strauss, has stopped making and commissioning ads like this. Why?

Modern Nike ads will never be so remembered. It’s not because we’re so inundated with information these days, though we are. And it’s not because today’s overexposed athletes lack the mystique of the 1990s superstars, though they do. It’s because the modern Nike ads are beyond fucking terrible.
- Ethan Strauss, Substack

And why are these ads so terrible? Nike like so many other institutions is tangled in the cultural weeds — race, gender, and power. “The result is that what Nike is happens to be at cross-purposes from what Nike aspires to be.”

Nike’s main problem is this: It’s a company built on masculinity, most specifically Michael Jordan’s alpha dog brand of it. Now, due to its own ambitions, scandals, and intellectual trends, Nike finds masculinity problematic enough to loudly reject.
- Ethan Strauss, Substack

For decades, Nike profited from and marketed a brand of hyper-masculinity. As Strauss puts it:

If you’re committed to marketing sports overall, you’re marketing, at the very least, a brand of masculinity. Dominating your opponents isn’t the only way to be a man and doing so isn’t exclusively the province of men, but the act itself is a disproportionately male endeavor, and also something that really appeals to male audiences. The nation that contains more female than male sports fans 
 doesn’t exist. Nike sold the public this rented masculinity, year after year, and the public bought it, including the many women who found Nike’s pitchmen and products to be charismatic.
- Ethan Strauss, Substack

What are Nike’s football ads like today? They’re tolerance bromides, with hyper-masculinity not air-bushed out of the picture, but actively condemned.


Strauss thinks it resembles “an aggressive parody of liberals” not an advertisement for sports apparel. The company’s voice has been bent into the “language of righteousness.”

Ironically, Nike mattered a lot more in the days when its position was less dominant. Back when it had to really fight for market share, it made bold, genre-altering art. The ads were synonymous with masculine victory, plus they were cheekily irreverent. And so the dudes loved them. Today, Nike is something else. It LARPs as a grandiose feminist nonprofit as it floats aimlessly on the vessel Michael Jordan built long ago. Like Jordan himself, Nike is rich forever off what it can replicate never. Unlike Jordan, it now wishes to be known for anything but its triumphs. Nike once told a story and that story resonated with its audience. Now it’s decided that its audience is the problem.
- Ethan Strauss, Substack

Read the whole essay here.