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The Olympics are always a schlockfest, but these ads are actually great

Nike, Athleta, Beats By Dre, and more stand out among the contenders.

The Olympics are always a schlockfest, but these ads are actually great
[Screenshots: Beats, Athleta, Nike]
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For athletes, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of their careers. For everyone else, they’re a way to showcase national pride, a chance to become an armchair expert, and, of course, an advertising extravaganza. There’s no part of the Olympics that isn’t branded, with 84 official domestic and international sponsors that have paid the International Olympic Committee about $2 billion collectively to be layered throughout every moment of the Games.

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Advertisers see the Olympics as a Super Bowl-esque opportunity, spread out over weeks instead of one night, to show off their best storytelling and skills of emotional manipulation. The challenge this year is balancing the scale of the event with the unprecedented nature of the circumstances surrounding it. For most brands, it’s like COVID never existed. For others, the attempts at meaningful social statements end up sounding generic and insincere. “For brands like Nike, which have a history of inspiring all kinds of athletes and taking on social issues in the process, they still ring true,” says Syracuse professor Brian Sheehan. “For others, not so much.” He cites brands, such as Comcast and Oreo, as successfully tapping into the joy, diversity, and fun of the Olympics while still staying on brand.

But amid the muddled messaging of this strange year, there were still some clear standouts. Here are my five favorite ads of the Tokyo Games.

Nike “The New Fairies”

On the same day that 13-year-old Brazilian Rayssa Leal won the silver medal in the first-ever women’s Olympic skateboarding street event, Nike launched a new spot celebrating her style and talent. But this isn’t a rah-rah, flag-waving affair. Instead, it’s a Mary Poppins mix of live-action and 2D animation that gives a charming nod to both a skater’s imagination and her youth while spreading the gospel that skateboarding is for everyone. Fun, cool, and cliche-free.

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Dick’s Sporting Goods “There She Is”

On its face, the retailer’s ad cheekily swipes at the antiquated image of the feminine ideal by juxtaposing strong, powerful, and talented female athletes with Johnny Desmond’s 1955 tune “Miss America.” The brand balanced the uncertainty around the Games with creating an ad that fit the Olympic mood but could also run anywhere, anytime. “We’ve thought about this as more broad than the Olympics,” chief marketing officer Ed Plummer told me. “It’s relevant whether the Olympics take place or not.”

Athleta “Simone.”

Shortly before the Games were set to start, Simone Biles left Nike to sign a new endorsement deal with Athleta. Of course, the brand created a commercial to celebrate this move, which launched a week before the opening ceremonies. However, its most important message was much quieter, and definitely less planned.

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After Biles pulled out of both the women’s team finals and the individual all-around final, citing mental health issues, it became a massive media story. Traditionally, an athlete’s value to a brand has been results. But in 2021, they’re also seen as three-dimensional human beings, and these other aspects have become almost as important to their popularity and cultural cache. Athleta clearly knows this, and instead of trying to cash in on all of the attention, it sent a gesture of support to Biles that illustrated their commitment. Sure there’s a logo front and center, but there’s no sign of a hard sell.

Channel 4 “Super. Human.”

The UK broadcaster won a shelf full of awards for its Paralympic ads for both the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio Games. It’s a lot to live up to, but this year’s spot doesn’t disappoint. It’s a fresh, fun take on the brand’s ongoing “superhuman” theme, and yet another welcome focus on athletes who tend to get a much smaller media spotlight. Added points for the soundtrack, a seriously deep cut in the form of a catchy remake of “So You Wanna Be A Boxer” from the 1976 film Bugsy Malone.

Beats By Dre “Sha’Carri Richardson”

The Tokyo Games were supposed to be a cultural coming-out party for Sha’Carri Richardson, introducing the stylish American sprinter to sports fans around the globe. But just weeks before the Games, she was banned from competing after testing positive for marijuana. Her suspension was a hot topic of debate, and before that controversy simmered down, Beats made this spot to run during the NBA Finals and during the Olympic Games that she was prevented from attending. It featured her lining up in the running blocks, training alone at night while listening to Kanye West’s new track “No Child Left Behind” off the album Donda, which hadn’t dropped yet.

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For Beats, this was a masterstroke, combining one of America’s most of-the-moment athletes with one of its most polarizing artists. Gold medal in pop culture advertising.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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