Nike has never shied away from shouting into a figurative megaphone to sell its shoes and apparel or to tell us to Just Do It. Nike's amplified voice has shouted for Michael Jordan but has fallen silent in the service of Michael Vick, who has agreed to plead guilty to dogfighting charges.
In a campaign that will make its debut Saturday, 18 women step up to a 15-foot-long megaphone with a 3-foot-wide mouthpiece to deliver a unified message: We're athletes, so ditch the female modifier.
"Are boys bigger, stronger, faster? Yes," says Gabrielle Reece, the beach volleyball player, in the commercial, which was shot in a high school gym in Los Angeles. "Is that all that has to do with being an athlete? No."
Gretchen Bleiler, the Olympic snowboarder, follows Reece by saying, "The halfpipe doesn't care that I'm a girl." Alvina Carroll, a streetballer, adds: "It's not a girl thing. It's not a boy thing. It's a skills thing."
The group commercial will be accompanied on ESPN, MTV and other networks by individual ads starring four athletes (Bleiler, Carroll, Picabo Street and Mia Hamm) and one man (Bill Ressler, a high school girls basketball coach). Eleven more spots, which will include other athletes from the group, will appear in the coming weeks on television and on various Web sites.
In her commercial, Street, a gold medalist in skiing at the 1998 Olympics, evokes Dove's Real Beauty campaign, which celebrates the shapes of everyday women.
"I started building this body when I was 13," she says. "I did it on purpose. Mass times velocity equals momentum. When I look in the mirror, I see an athlete. Mass is an advantage. And I'm proud of that athlete."
A billboard showing two pictures of Serena Williams from the waist up will also be unveiled Tuesday at West 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Between the images, a question is posed: "Are you looking at my titles?"
The campaign is rolling out at the start of the WNBA playoffs and the U.S. Open, and in advance of the kickoff of the Women's World Cup in China on Sept. 10.
"It's time to nudge the conversation," Reece said in an interview. "Women's professional sports have plateaued. I've seen it in beach volleyball; as a league, it's been in the same place for a long time. At the grass roots, they're taking physical education out of schools."
The ads were created by Wieden & Kennedy but are unscripted; the athletes were briefed on the broad themes but ad-libbed their parts.
Diana Taurasi, a guard for the Phoenix Mercury, said by telephone: "They threw us topics about racism, sexism -- all the things that are a backlash to women's sports. We freelanced, and I guess it came out powerfully."
Sarah Reinertsen, a triathlete who has worn a prosthetic left leg since she was 7, said the campaign resonated with her.
"I've always been fighting to be seen as an athlete but also as a disabled woman," she said in an interview. "For so long, I wasn't included in sports, so I feel every person, regardless of gender or disability, has a right to be an athlete."
Some of the themes raised in the ads emerged in Nike's interviews with 175 teenage female athletes in major markets around the country this year.
"They think of themselves as competitors first and want to win as much as their male counterparts," Nancy Monsarrat, Nike's U.S. brand marketing director, said. "But as strong as they are, they had issues about sexism and inequities in the sports they play compared with the males."
A campaign aimed at teenage girls is a strategy that helps Nike maintain its hold on female consumers, and comes shortly after Under Armour began a marketing push aimed at the team girls niche.
Nike says it has 19% of the combined US and European footwear and apparel markets for women; John Horan, the publisher of the newsletter Sporting Goods Intelligence, said that Nike was far ahead of any of its competitors.
Last year, in a whimsical vein, Nike cast Maria Sharapova in a TV ad in which everyone she passed on her way to the US Open sang "I Feel Pretty."
But in April, after Don Imus' remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team, which Nike sponsors, were viewed as racist, the company ran a full-page ad in The New York Times with 10 lines that began, "Thank you, ignorance," and continued, "Thank you for unintentionally moving women's sport forward."
The new campaign broadly continues the debate sparked by Imus' poorly chosen words.
"The Imus incident was key," Taurasi said. "A lot of people still think that way about women athletes."