Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999

Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh

Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson
Sage Publications: London
0761961496 (pb); 0761961488 (hb)
15.99 (pb); 49.50 (hb)

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In 'Nike Culture', part of the Sage 'Core Cultural Icons' series, Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson provide a fascinating deconstructive take on the television advertising strategies of that most successful of sportswear brands, Nike. They provide a usefu l multi-textual approach for Cultural Studies students interested in the iconography and semiology of advertising. Charting the emergence of the Nike brand from a subordinate position in the sportswear market, to its contemporary dominance, Nike is presen ted as one of those few brands (Coca Cola being the obvious comparison) for which its logo - the 'swoosh' - has become globally recognisable, a symbol laden with distinctive and often shared meaning. The authors argue that Nike and its advertising agency, Wieden and Kennedy, have taken the swoosh, an 'empty sign' in 1971, and invested it with specific meaning systems based on a 'Nike ethos' of transcendence, individuality and authenticity. Through constantly transforming, locally-specific advertising camp aigns, the swoosh has developed a flexibility (complementary to flexible production and consumption) which achieves contextual appeal whilst undertowed by a global metacommunication - the 'Nike ethos'.

Each chapter provides a rich analysis of Nike's transforming strategies of metacommunication: the use of celebrity; the transcendence of celebrity; the empowerment of the alienated individual; the appropriation of 'street' sub-cultures; the use of 'altern ative music' and unorthodox advertising production techniques; the significance of gender and 'race'; are used as examples to illustrate Nike's ability to engage with diversity and individuality whilst maintaining appeal through generality. Nike parodies traditional glitzy advertising techniques, points fun at its own contribution to 'spectacularisation', proffers a 'knowing wink' to its audience; it evokes an unparalleled sense of authenticity through this self-reflexive awareness. And all the time the s woosh is present. The swoosh operates at the hub of systems of niche marketing. It is a signature which provides a universality from within contradictory gendered and racialised messages. In Nike television adverts we are shown an HIV positive runner, a g rainy scene of inner-city basketball, the celebration of 'soul' over body; we are presented with a Nike ethos, a philosophy of resilience and empowerment where to "Just do it" has a spirituality encapsulated by the swoosh.

Nike advertisements are clever. They are reflexive and boundaryless; they wade deep into the politics of race and gender, yet somehow, almost always, emerge unscathed, credible, (hyper)authentic. They are protected by an underlying irreverence, an agreeme nt lying deep within the swoosh which accepts that these are only adverts; that 'we are just trying to sell you something'. The authors show how the Nike brand thrives on the multi-textual appellation of different sub-cultures, an almost spiritual realis m which connects with individual aspirations and leads us to a convincingly separate spirituality - the consumer cathedrals of 'Nike World'. That we are willing to enter these vast glitzy retail outlets is testament to Nike's ability to parody its own com merciality, to intoxicate by evoking an equivalency which makes us all feel special, whilst openly accepting (and ensuring we know they are open about this) their position in a global market as a global brand.

The book 'Nike Culture' is packed full of textual analysis. Page after page is saturated with the pursuit of discursive regimes as the authors admirably struggle through complex praxes of Nike's intertextuality. This process, though methodologically neces sary, at times provides a rather toilsome read. The dense deconstructive treatises tend towards obscuring the authors' interpretations. The book is almost enveloped and overawed by Nike's intertextual weavings, each attempt at critical distance smothered by an overwhelming temptation to provide yet another example of an advertisement. Engagements with the politics of race and gender, and the mismatch between Nike's gritty authenticity and the atrocities of its 'slave-labour' outsourcing, are ultimately un satisfactory, because the authors avoid making hard conclusions and instead choose to deconstruct yet another advert. This is a defeatist act which exhibits a deference to the power and complexity of Nike adverts by inferring they are simply too clever to enable conclusive and settled interpretation.

Yet perhaps this is 'the point'. This book's drive, its strength, comes from the identification of 'the swoosh' as the constant - that which can be pinned down - of Nike's complex and transforming advertising approach. The adverts themselves move too much . They run away, rendering pursuit futile. The swoosh stands unchanged within advert after advert of evanescent intertextuality; it represents Nike, is Nike; it provides a signature for imagery devoid of the word 'Nike'. The swoosh can be captured and dec onstructed; the swoosh carries the discourse whilst all that surrounds it melts away. Goldman and Papson skilfully reduce the swoosh to an essence, dismantle it as a Nike ethos of transcendence, individual fortitude, the inevitability of triumph over adve rsity. Finally, they predict the possible demise of the swoosh; an expiration caused by a case of 'overswooshification'. Nike is as vulnerable as anyone else competing in an unstable 'economy of signs'; backlash is possible; the contradictions carried wit hin and symbolised by the swoosh may just render its ubiquity and ascendancy unsustainable. This prediction injects the book with a critical poise previously absent, necessarily reminding the reader that the semiotics of commodification are unstable and t hat even Nike is, ultimately, fallible.

Tom Fleming
Manchester Metropolitan University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999