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The curse of the Nike Write the Future ad

May 5, 2011

Nike and Adidas share one of football’s enduring rivalries. The sportswear giants have wrestled for exposure for decades, using large tournaments to outdo each other in the publicity stakes. At the 2010 World Cup, the American company’s representation was relatively low. Nine of the 32 competing teams wore Nike kits, while 12 were supplied by Adidas. The latter was also an official partner of the spectacle – providing the match ball – and has traditionally had strong ties with Fifa, in a relationship that dates back 30 years.

Nike had a secret weapon, however. According to reports by Nielsen, a worldwide media information company, in the run up to the World Cup, Nike’s “Write the Future” campaign generated more online attention than a campaign by its European counterpart.

The advertising coup was extraordinary. The same cannot be said for the World Cup performances of most of the footballers who appeared in the advert.

Franck Ribéry (France) and Wayne Rooney (England) both underperformed, failing to score even one goal between them. Their respective sides made early exits, with Les Bleus flying home in a storm of controversy (Ribéry had been involved in a changing room mutiny).

Fabio Cannavaro, who captained Italy to World Cup victory in 2006, was humiliated when his team finished at the bottom of their group in 2010, below modest New Zealand. Portugal too were unable to match the hype that surrounded them, falling to Iberian rivals Spain in the round of 16. Ronaldo scored 33 goals for Real Madrid last season, but managed only one in South Africa.

Two of the commercial’s stars never made it to the field. Ronaldhino and Theo Walcott were overlooked for the Brazil and England squads respectively.

Didier Drogba was another high-profile casualty, fracturing his right arm prior to the tournament during a friendly with Japan. Ivory Coast failed to advance from the “group of death”. The striker’s goal against Brazil, the first scored against the reigning South American champions by a player from an African side in a World Cup match, was little consolation.

The ad depicted these players taking charge of their futures; using their talent to make crucial interventions in games and, by extension, positive changes to their lives and those of their countrymen. Real life saw them fail to live up to their billing at the 2010 World Cup, prompting more buzz online. Many commented that the Write the Future campaign was cursed.

Nike’s fortunes seemed for a while to mirror the action on field. In early July, Nielsen released a follow-up report which stated that Adidas had gained the status of the most talked about World Cup-related brand during the first two weeks of the tournament. Adidas’s buzz accounted for 25% of the top 10 official sponsors and their competitors, nearly 6% more than Nike during the same period. This was ostensibly due to a new Star Wars-themed TV advert launched by the German company, as well as controversy surrounding the Jabulani ball.

By the time Andrés Iniesta slotted in his winning goal for Spain during the final on 11 July (wearing an Adidas-supplied kit and a pair of Nike CTR360 boots, no less) the lines had blurred somewhat. The sportswear rivals were neck and neck, with analysts citing no clear victor in the publicity war. It was, nevertheless, a triumph for Nike, who tapped into an audience of 2.5 billion World Cup followers worldwide without being an official sponsor of the event. The Write the Future ad campaign proved to be a bad luck charm for most of the players involved, but it wrote the cheques for the American multinational.

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