Nike Ad Sparks Furor

Skateboarder gets the best of gladiator in television spot, says shoe giant.

The Internet was abuzz in August with rumors of a Nike shoe commercial that makes a decidedly anti-skateboarder statement. Titled Gladiator, the spot was being filmed in London when Unabomber CEO Pete Hellicar and teamrider Vaughan Baker were shown a script and Baker was offered a role as a stunt skater. After reviewing the script Hellicar and Baker refused to participate, citing their disapproval of the storyline that described a skateboarder being chased by and ultimately cut down by a gladiator character.

London skate shop Slam City Skates posted the script on its Web site, and that version was reproduced and widely distributed by e-mail.

According to Nike officials, that version is incorrect, and the finished ad absolutely does not send an anti-skateboarding message.

Nike Senior PR Manager Scott Reames says that the company would never make an anti-skateboarding statement, and cites Nike’s 1998 What If All Athletes Were Treated Like Skateboarders? campaign as evidence of its support of the sport. “This entire matter has been blown way out of proportion, and the ad in question bears very little resemblance to the early draft of a script that has been circulated on the Web,” he said.

The Gladiator skateboarding ad is part of a series called Why Sport? that will air during the Sydney Olympics. The What If All Athletes Were Treated Like Skateboarders? campaign was produced by San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein, & Partners, which worked with Nike from 1997 to 1999. The Why Sport? ads, including Gladiator, were conceived by Nike’s longtime ad agency Wieden & Kennedy of Portland, Oregon. “There is one ad featuring the gladiator/skateboarder showdown, one featuring Lance Armstrong coming to the aid of an ailing elephant, and one featuring a world-class runner escaping a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Each one shows a different reason why sport, even in unusual circumstances, is a benefit.”

The draft of the Gladiator ad that Hellicar and Baker at Unabomber were given reads as follows:

“Gladiator (:30)

“Open on a crowded city sidewalk. It’s early morning. People are everywhere, going about their daily routine.

“We see a skateboarder making his way through a mass of people. He narrowly misses bumping into a small woman. He swerves, jumps off the curb, flips his board back up onto the sidewalk and continues on his way.

“Suddenly, an enormous Roman gladiator emerges from the crowd, and he’s directly in the path of the kid. The Gladiator is dressed in full battle regalia, complete with a massive sword and shiny shield. With a frightening growl, he lunges at the kid.

“The kid ducks, barely eluding the Gladiator’s sword. He turns quickly down a side street with the gladiator in full pursuit.

“In an alley now, the kid launches off a loading dock, landing perfectly next to a row of trash dumpsters. The Gladiator follows, running on top of the dumpsters just above the kid, then leaps down to cut him off.

“The kid slides his board to a stop. The Gladiator faces the kid and swings his sword. The kid leaps and the sword misses him, passing between the kid’s feet and his skateboard. The kid lands perfectly back on his board, then flips it up, catches it, and uses it as a shield to block another giant swing from the Gladiator’s sword.

“We then see a rapid series of cuts as the kid uses his skills to avoid the Gladiator: He does a 360. An ollie. Then a frontside heelflip.

“Finally, the two adversaries find themselves standing face to face. Close ups of both of them tell us this is it. The moment of truth. The kid confidently chomps on his gum and confidently blows a bubble.

“The Gladiator swings his sword and cuts the skateboarder in half.

“We see the gum hit the pavement, bubble intact.

“Super: Why sport ?

“Super: You may run iinto a skateboarder.

“Super: Swoosh/Just Do It.”

Given the tag line used in this early script, and the fact that the skater is cut down¿albeit off-camera¿by the gladiator character, it’s no wonder that Hellicar and Baker were incensed by it. In the other ads described by Reames, the athletes get away or save the day. “The original idea was to show the skateboarder empowered by his board; when he gets off his board at the end, that’s when he’s vulnerable,” he said. “It’s common for script drafts to be changed, sometimes many times, from the first presentation to the final edit. First, the tag line at the end of the ad is ‘You may run into a gladiator,’ not ‘skateboarder,’ which changes the entire tenor of the ad. Second, the skateboarder is the one who outwits the gladiator, using his boarding skills. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but I can assure you the boarder is very much intact at the end of the ad.”

According to Reames, the ad’s producers realized early on that the subtle message¿that the skateboarder is empowered while on his board¿would be too difficult to convey in a 30-second ad. “It’s too esoteric of a message for people to say, ‘Oh, I get it. Now that he’s off his board, he can’t get away from the gladiator,'” he said. “Sometimes you don’t realize when you’re first writing something down that nobody will get it. I haven’t seen the final, but the funny thing is that this isn’t a pro- or anti- or any sort of skateboard campaign. Every one of the ads is going to have the tag line, ‘Why Sport?’ And the answers are all different, the idea being that sport can come out of almost any situation.”

In the version handed to Hellicar and Baker in London last month, however, the skateboarder meets his fate. While it may have gone through subsequent revisions, it’s this early draft that’s been generating a steady flow of irate e-mail and inquiries to Reames. “There’s two sides to every story, and all is not as it seems,” he said. “Almost never does a script, as it’s first presented to an agent or an athlete, end up being the way it’s shot.”

While we wait to see the final version, which will air sometime this weekend, Reames said that even he doesn’t know exactly how it ends. In the meantime, skaters are circulating a version of the script that has generated a response Nike hadn’t anticipated¿or hoped for. “It makes absolutely no sense that Nike would create an ad that would alienate the skateboard community in favor of the gladiator community,” he said. “I am not even sure there is a gladiator community. I have seen the rough cut of this particular ad, and can assure you what viewers will see next week during the Olympics is not what you would expect by reading that script.”