Slate's Ad Report Card: Soccer Stars in the Spotlight

The latest television ads for Nike athletic shoes focus on international soccer — the world's most popular sport, but with relatively few fans in the United States. Slate columnist Seth Stevenson says the new commercials could win over even soccer skeptics here in America.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Soccer is not America's favorite pastime. That has no deterred Nike. The shoe company is banking on a new ad campaign, featuring players most Americans have never heard of. Does it work? Here's Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine, Slate.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, Slate Magazine): The 2006 World Cup kicks off on June 9, and Nike and Adidas are already girding themselves for a marketing battle. With the final being held in Berlin, the German-based Adidas will have home turf advantage, but Nike sponsors the World Champion Brazilian squad. Nike has long led Adidas in overall worldwide market share, but soccer's a holdout category, in which Adidas maintains an edge.

Nike hopes the new Jogo Bonito commercials will put an end to that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVENSON: We see a burly, bearded man with an accent, sitting at a video-editing console. He cues up some old footage of a little kid playing soccer.

(Soundbite of Nike Commercial)

Mr. ERIC CANTONA: (In Nike commercial clip) When you are a kid, you are not afraid to try it.

Mr. STEVENSON: Then he intercuts this with modern-day scenes with the kid all grown up, still playing soccer. Kid and man both execute some astonishing moves, bewildering their opponents and scoring goals at will. The bearded man speaks again.

Mr. ERIC CANTONA: (In Nike commercial clip) All I've got to do is...

Unidentified Man: (In Nike commercial clip) Never grow up, my friend.

Mr. STEVENSON: Never grow up. As the spot ends, we see the Nike swoosh and the words Jogo Bonito, Portuguese for play beautiful. The phrase is a double-edged dig at Adidas. It reminds us, first, that the World Champion Brazilians are a Nike team, and second, that Brazil plays a creative, dazzling style of soccer, which outshines the more conservative, bruising teams. I'm looking at you here, Germany, and the three-stripe Adidas logo on your chest.

The best spot in the new campaign is the one with the kid, who, as an soccer fan would know, is the Brazilian star, Ronaldinho. The grown-up Ronaldinho pulls off one move, rolling his foot around the ball in midair, and then darting off in a new direction that's so breathtaking, I've been watching the clip over and over. You can find a link to the ad at slate.com. The soundtrack, all woodwinds and handclaps, perfectly embodies the spot's title, Joy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVENSON: I do have one concern about the Jogo Bonito campaign. Is it an effective way to sell soccer in the United States? First of all, that bearded man who hosts the spots to his French soccer legend, Eric Cantona, who is totally unknown to U.S. viewers. But, most important, the lighthearted Jogo Bonito ethos seems to run contrary to Nike's usual message: go for broke, take no prisoners, sweating tears, just do it. That tougher message was the theme of a recent Nike ad titled Awake, my favorite ad of the year so far.

It has superstar athletes like Tom Brady, training hard to the beat of AC/DC's Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution")

Mr. STEVENSON: It's not about joy and playing beautiful. It's about Tom Brady studying game film at dawn. That's the core of Nike's brand. Perhaps soccer is a sport with a wholly different mood, requiring a wholly different approach, but I wonder if Nike might have been better off with a set of U.S.-specific ads, showing American soccer players, giving their all and muddying their uniforms? Joga Feio? That's Portuguese for play ugly, I think.

I give these soccer ads an A minus. Hugely entertaining spots, so much so that I'll forgive any branding missteps.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine, Slate.

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