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Greatness Isn't Exploitation

This morning we started talking around the water cooler about the Nike Olympic spot that is getting a lot of buzz. You know, the one with the out-of-shape kid running down a country road. Folks mentioned the simplicity of the story and the surprise of who was running as the kid came into frame. Everyone thought it was inspiring.

We also discussed the meaning and what Nike was trying to say. The message I saw was that greatness is in the effort as well as the outcome, and that Nike is for all kinds of people - from Olympic athletes to out-of-shape kids trying to run a mile. We each related to the story a little differently, but we all related to it and liked it.

I was shocked to read that Jezebel accused the brand of fat shaming. And the Washington Post wondered if the commercial was exploitation. The unexpected sight of a fat kid in a Nike ad seems to have some cultural critics misreading it.

I went back and watched the ad again with a more critical eye. Nope. I don't see exploitation or shaming. Those accusations are over the top. Take a look for yourself.



The copy is lofty and speaks about "the rest of us" and "all of us". Here it is again.

"Greatness. It's just something we made up. Somehow we've come to believe that greatness is a gift reserved for the chosen few. The prodigies. The superstars. And the rest of us can only stand by watching. You can forget that. Greatness is not some rare DNA strand. It's not some precious thing. Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing. We're all capable of it. All of us. Find your greatness."

It doesn't say anything mean or shaming. It must be the visual of the kid running that has them upset. The implicit argument in some of the critiques is that the mere act of showing an overweight kid battling through exertion exploits his body and shames him. Nonsense.

I prefer the implicit argument in the spot itself: people of all sizes jog and there is no shame in their game, only potential greatness. Showing Nathan Sorrell of London, Ohio running is to represent him specifically, sure, and due to the spot's popularity he's having his fifteen minutes of fame. But Nike and its agency, Weiden + Kennedy, also wrapped him in the community of "all of us" and made him heroic - an affirmation, not shaming.

Greatness is a process and a state of mind as much as it is an outcome. So if Nike is going to represent "all of us" and inspire "the rest of us" through a single runner, why not him? He was great.