Squaring Off: Examining A Spec(tacular?) Adidas Ad
Feb 1, 2017
Some say it was a well-executed, inspirational ad. Others consider it an off-brand video that manipulated emotions by playing to certain stereotypes. Either way, it’s hard not to have an opinion after watching “Break Free,” the unofficial Adidas commercial that recently went viral—along with the story behind the 99-second spot.
“We tried sending it to (Adidas’) communications department but they didn’t really react,” Eugen Merher, a 26-year-old student at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, told The Huffington Post.
Mum may be the word at Adidas, but the “student film” sparked its fair share of conversations online. Centerline Senior Creative Director Fabian Marquez and Senior Content Writer Marc Thaler chimed in, too. Here, they go toe-to-toe (pardon the pun) to debate some of the finer points of the piece—and attempt to answer the ultimate question…
If “Break Free” was an official Adidas spot, would it help or hurt the brand?
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Let the debate begin (but not before you watch the video):
MARC: I’ll kick things off with a big picture statement: There is no shortage of flat out forgettable content in today’s marketplace of ideas. You know, all kinds of quantity but far less quality. That’s why there’s so much noise. As marketers, we’ve all been guilty of contributing to the decibel level, too. I am by no means an exception. And that’s precisely why “Break Free” is a winner. It broke through.
It resonated with the audience—deeply.
The fact that “Break Free” went viral speaks volumes. To date, it has received 11.6 million views on YouTube. A staggering 99 percent of viewers who voted on its likability gave it a thumb’s up.
The numbers, my friend, don’t lie.
FABIAN: Indeed the numbers are compelling, Marc, and if I were to base things solely on viewcount it would be an unqualified success. But as a brand asset for a major label like Adidas, it’s a freaking trainwreck!
My main issue – and the reason I think Adidas was right to shun this work of speculative fiction – is that it casts nursing homes and the people who care for the elderly in a truly ghastly light. They seem more like prison wardens than caregivers.
In fact, is it really supposed to be a nursing home at all? The setting plays more like the psychiatric hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, complete with Nurse Ratched. And the protagonist exhibits bipolar and even antisocial behavior, vacillating between bouts of melancholy and frenetic hyperactivity. Even the title and tagline, “Break Free,” is something you could associate with escaping from prison or torture.
This surely can’t be how Adidas wants to depict a retirement home and I can only imagine the protests, boycotts and even legal action that would have sprung up if Adidas had embraced and pushed this ad.
And so isn’t it irresponsible (at worst) and naive (at best) of the filmmakers to insinuate the Adidas brand into this potential powder keg?
MARC: Well, allow me to strike the match that sets fire to your argument—and blows your mind. Fffffttttt!
I don’t think the filmmaker was painting a ghastly picture of assisted living facilities or the elderly whatsoever. In fact, that thought never crossed my mind (though it’s a popular argument critics here at Centerline like to make). What if I told you the unsettling environment is a metaphor for the challenges and frustrations of growing old?
To varying degrees, we’ve all watched family or friends fight Father Time—and lose. Sometimes it’s a slow demise. On other occasions, it happens seemingly overnight. Either way, it’s an experience that can be dark (i.e. the facility itself), lonely (hero sitting alone in his room) and even debilitating (the confiscated sneakers symbolizing an inability to “go the distance”). Nurse Ratched, as you described her, is just another depiction of a physical and/or emotional shackle of growing older.
I give the filmmaker credit for going there. It is raw. It is emotional. It is memorable. The fact Adidas didn’t denounce the spot tells me their representatives don’t take issue with it—not to the degree naysayers speculate, anyway.
Behind boardroom doors, I bet they fist pump. Too often, brand guidelines are treated like law. They simply can’t be broken. No way, no how. And anyone who dares to push the envelope—stray without going rogue—is working on borrowed time.
Guidelines are important suggestions. But they’re not the gospel.
FABIAN: Fist pumping? Doubtful. More like handwringing. I can only imagine the hushed conversations with Legal and frequent mentions of the words “Cease and Desist.”
Think about it: They have a toxic asset. They can’t claim it, elevate it or leverage it for any future campaigns. Even the term “Break Free” is scorched earth for the brand going forward as it will forever be linked to the video! That sucks.
Does it hurt them to have this video out there collecting views? Probably not, just so long as they have plausible deniability.
And does it help them? Meh…11+ million views is nice, but hardly a viral phenomenon for a global juggernaut like Adidas. They probably get 11 million views every time Aaron Rodgers farts into a microphone. (“Break Free” indeed!)
So what, they end up with is a one-off parasitic asset attached to their heel like a swollen tick on the geriatric runner at the end of the video. Like him, maybe they’re too busy getting their groove on to worry about the errant pest feasting on their lifeblood.
MARC: So let me get this straight: If Adidas claims this spot, it owns a brand-killing asset. After all, you simply don’t recover from “toxic.” But then, even you admit there’s likely no harm in having the video reach millions of eyeballs. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.
Adidas’ best bet is plausible deniability? Please. We’ve seen how well that approach plays with people. See Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino with the hoop team’s prostitution ring scandal, or any Major League Baseball star from the steroid era. (Hey, if you can make a sports reference, why can’t I?)
Is this spot poisonous to the brand? I am emphatically hammering the letters “N” and “O” on my keyboard. Hell, it’s not even offensive.
Is it provocative? Sure. Three more words: Bold is beautiful.
I’ll also remind you that, once upon a time, Adidas inked Run-DMC to the first endorsement deal between a music act and an athletic company. The band and its lyrics are no doubt tame by today’s standards, but that was hardly the case in 1986.
Remember “My Adidas”? Of the song that fueled a fashion phenomenon, DMC told MTV, “It came from the place of people would look at the b-boys, the b-girls and go, ‘Oh, those are the people that cause all the problems in here.’ And, ‘Those young people are nothing but troublemakers…”
How’d that work out for Adidas and its brand? (Mic drop!)
FABIAN: Here’s your mic back. It didn’t quite hit the floor… Maybe that’s because your argument lacks gravity.
Yes, yes the Run-DMC campaign was a radical departure (and one of my all-time faves) but it was also carefully planned, vetted by tons of market research, and buoyed by all that free advertising from an increasingly mainstream Hip Hop culture.
In other words, it was a safe bet.
However, it raises an interesting question: Should brands encourage independent filmmakers to experiment and take risks with their brand? If a spot misses, the brand risks nothing. But if it hits, they reap the benefits.
Consider the spec Johnny Walker ad that came out around this time last year. It became an instant viral success and brought unexpected shine onto Johnny Walker without them having to lift a finger. Now those same filmmakers have made a second spec spot for Volvo which, believe it or not, actually got the auto maker’s blessing!
In the case of “Break Free”, Adidas is having it both ways. They’re reaping all of the benefits without incurring any harm to their brand…because they aren’t claiming it. Until then, it’s a safe bet.
MARC: By keeping silent, Adidas is claiming it! As for incurring harm to its brand, there’s no harm to be had! The “safe bet” is wagering that execs know this. How? The market research they get from a simple online search informs them. Some examples, in addition to the viewership stats I started with:
Adweek said the spot “helps the brand stand out a good deal more than yet another anthem ad about ignoring the doubters and achieving greatness.”
USA Today proclaimed the piece “so amazing it deserves to be a real ad”—in its headline!
Even Scary Mommy declared the work something “the Internet cannot get enough of.”
So, bringing this sucker full circle, would an Adidas endorsement of this spec ad help or hurt the brand? The answer is obvious.
FABIAN: The only thing that’s obvious to me here is that user-generated content cannot be underestimated. Average people are making and sharing things that have tremendous power, even the power to reshape well-established brands.
We’re seeing this disruption in so many areas beyond advertising…50 Shades of Grey started as fan fiction for the Twilight franchise. You just mentioned the Scary Mommy blog, which had humble beginnings and now influences the behavior and buying habits of millions of parents. And we all know that YouTube is minting millionaires on the daily.
In that light, it seems plausible that brands of the near future might not try in vain to keep tight controls on established guidelines but rather serve as muses to inspire the users who will generate content for them.
For Adidas, the “Break Free” spot would fit within that future model.
But in the here and now, it speaks volumes that Adidas hasn’t put its arm around this spot, copyrighted the slogan “Break Free,” and produced the sequel for their official Super Bowl spot.
In other words – it’s not a marriage, it’s just Netflix and chill.
Which makes “Break Free” a cheap, albeit memorable, fling.
Marc Thaler is a former journalist and broadcaster-turned-associate creative director. For 10+ years, he covered sports around New England—everything from Little League to the big leagues. Several years back, he joined a software company specializing in cloud-based IT security and management solutions, spent a few years creating content in its marketing department, and then made the switch to Centerline. Over the years, his writing has appeared on a range of recognizable dot-coms, including ESPN, SC Magazine and Marketing Profs.