Nike Does It Again : Firm Targets Blacks With a Spin on ‘Family Values’


Marketers are putting a new spin on the “family values” theme to chase after a targeted consumer group: the black family.

Nike, the athletic shoe maker that seems to seek controversy, has found plenty of it with a new print ad campaign that not only looks at the issue of values among black families, but even explores the issue of the absent father in the black household.

One of the ads, which appears in August issues of several black publications, including Ebony and Black Enterprise, features a written dialogue between two young boys on a basketball court--one of whom has a father who “runs around” and who “says women are only good for one thing.”


While Republicans and Democrats continue to jostle for the family values mantle, this campaign--which also features several ads about ambitions and setting goals--may not sell a lot of shoes, but it is guaranteed to raise eyebrows among black consumers who purchase about 14.5% of Nike’s athletic shoes. Unlike advertisers such as Volvo that adopted--with a smirk--patriotic family values themes in their ads, these ethnic ads turn the family values issue on its head.


“We’ve struggled with the issue of family values long before Dan Quayle brought it up,” said Jimmy Smith, senior copy writer at the minority-owned Los Angeles agency Muse Cordero Chen, who wrote the ad.

Critics say Nike is out on a very shaky limb. “I think it’s a bad ad,” said Lawrence A. Johnson, dean of the School of Business and former marketing department chairman at Howard University. “The ad reinforces a stereotype about black fathers that many people accept. I’d much rather see an ad with a father and son playing basketball together.”

One senior advertising executive said that while the ad is imaginative, it is very risky. “Our research tells us that African-Americans get tired of reading about the negative side of inner city life,” said Valerie Graves, creative director at the black-owned New York agency UniWorld. “They would rather see ads that deal with the positive side.”

For its part, Nike executives say the honesty of the ad will appeal to black consumers. “The purpose of the campaign is not to sell more Nike products to African-Americans,” said Scott Bedbury, Nike’s director of advertising. “It’s to make the brand more relevant to them.”

But the ad does feature a toll-free phone number that it advises consumers to call for Nike product information.


For years, major advertisers have tried to target ethnic groups including blacks, Latinos and Asians with upbeat ads that stress family togetherness. In fact, ads aimed at ethnic minorities are often criticized for being unrealistic in their family orientation. McDonald’s has long run targeted spots featuring black and Latino families sharing happy moments under the McDonald’s sign. And Crest toothpaste has run ads featuring a black father and black son happily brushing their teeth together.

But several major advertisers are now trying to reach ethnic audiences with ads that show a different kind of family life. Burger King, for example, lays reality on the line with an ad for its Burger King Academy--an institute that puts students at risk (such as pregnant teen-agers) into improved environments for study. A recent print ad for the academy shows a teen-age mother feeding her baby while reading her algebra book.

Perhaps even more controversial, however, is Nike’s newest campaign that presents a stark, urban picture of a young black man who tells his buddy that his own father is a “gangster.” The print ad is set on a playground basketball court. The photo features only the shadows of two teen-age black youths who are shooting hoops. Their written dialogue runs like free-verse poetry across one side of the page:

“My dad’s a gangster,” says a troubled teen-ager.

“My dad’s a father,” responds his buddy.

“My dad runs around,” says the first.

“My dad runs 4 miles a day,” responds the second.

“My dad says women are only good for one thing.”

“My dad says Black women are living jewels.”

Smith says he wrote the ad nearly a year ago after seeing the movie “Boyz N the Hood,” a film about three teen-agers growing up in South-Central Los Angeles who have contrasting relationships with their families. “We told Nike we wanted to talk more about urban issues,” Smith said.

Although Nike encouraged the ad, it asked Smith to remove two references from a drawing board version that Nike executives believed were too explicit. In that version--which was never published--the troubled teen said, “My dad smoked two brothers”--a reference to killing two other black men. Also removed was the same young boy saying, “My dad smoked crack.”

Nike executives say they initially expected to receive considerable criticism for the ad, but have actually received very little. “Any company that wants to be relevant in the 1990s has to become culturally literate,” said Nike’s Bedbury. “The trick is to do that in a way that is honest and not pandering.”


The ad is a “reality check,” said Joe Muse, chairman of the agency that created the ad. “But perhaps family values is a misnomer. Maybe what we’re really talking about here is people just being a little more human to each other.”


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