All-Nighter: Nike’s “American Woman” Ad

6 min read

In our new series, “All-Nighter,” Robin Beery gives advertisements the meticulous Intro-to-Media treatment: close reads that deconstruct the mystery of modern marketing, complete with references to Wikipedia entries and to JSTOR abstracts of articles he admittedly hasn’t read. This week, Robin analyzes Nike’s recent “American Woman” ad, starring members of the U.S. women’s soccer team.

A new one-minute commercial from Nike features members of the U.S. women’s soccer team working out and practicing together, intercut with footage of non-professional girl soccer players also at practice. It’s timed to coincide with the first round of the Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The first shots are out of focus and lens flares are used to further obscure the identity of the figures in the frame. “Who are these people? Could they be just anyone?” these opening shots seem to ask.

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Yes. They could be just anyone. The ad’s opening seconds invite the viewer to imagine that she or he is part of the picture. We stand in too much sun while a simple, bluesy acoustic guitar riff plays, its plaintive, descending notes—along with the swoony footage—suggesting hard outdoor work, substandard labor conditions, inadequate access to water, and prison movies in the tradition of “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” Conditions are ripe for our triumph over adversity.

In the next dozen-or-so seconds we realize that these are not just any hard-luck Charleys. These are soccer players: women in sharp-looking Nike soccer gear as well as girls in gray sweats and day-glo scrimmage vests. They’re jumping, they’re running, they’re sweating gallons (suggesting that the supply of drinking water in this commercial is not as inadequate as we first thought), but they’re not happy with how things are going.

They look tired and unhappy. They rest their hands on their heads, raising their eyes heavenward, as though in appeal to a higher power. The lyrics: “American Woman. Gonna mess your mind. American Woman. Gonna messa your mind.” Something is messing with these women’s minds. They haven’t yet noticed that they’re part of a team.

At the 21-second mark, a player sitting on a bench in a locker room (suggesting she is “out of the game” in more ways than one) drops her Nike shoes to the ground (suggesting she is “discouraged”). At the same time, the acoustic guitar slows like a soccer ball rolling to a stop. It looks like it’s all over. End of Act One.

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Act Two opens with crunchy electric guitars. Members of the U.S. Women’s team go hopping past an exhausted Abby Wambach, who looks up and nods, ready to get back to work. The girl who had stopped running up and down the bleacher steps starts running up the steps again. Another girl throws her water bottle away, a spendthrift gesture perhaps meant as a comment on California’s draining of non-renewable aquifers. Or maybe it’s meant to signal that she is determined.

If you listen closely to the music at this point, you’ll hear faint but distinct high toms come in at regular intervals. These suggest the sound of soccer balls being decisively booted. And, in fact, at about the 30-second mark, we see footage of a soccer ball being decisively booted that is in sync with the high tom. Our heartbeats are now in sync as well.

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And, hey! We recognize this song. It’s “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz. But it doesn’t sound quite the same. Was that bluesy opening even part of the same song?

Some quick research reveals that this is the original version of the song (complete with acoustic blues opening), written by the Canadian band The Guess Who during a live jam at a curling rink in Ontario (irony). Now we understand that it is American women who are going to “mess [Canada’s] mind.” Canadians will want American Women to “get away from” them because “Mama” [read: American women] are not going to “let [Canadian national women’s team] be.”

Is this really a Nike ad, or just a thinly veiled salvo in the long rivalry between Canadian and American women’s soccer? The use of this song seems to imply that the U.S. Women’s team is set to burn all of Canada’s curling rinks to the ground.

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Speaking of rivalry, what about the look that Christen Press gives Megan Rapinoe after she scores on her? Right at the 33-second mark. It looks like she’s set to burn Megan Rapinoe’s curling rink to the ground. But by the 34-second mark, Megan Rapinoe is fighting back, giving the ball a decisive boot of her own.

And as the women’s team and the squad of girls start to work together and help each other out, we even see, by the 42-second mark, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe start to work together as a team (which is good, because they actually are on the same team). This is the moment that the message of the ad becomes clear: Competition makes you strong, but it can only take you so far. You’ve got to become part of a team. And just to be safe, you should probably stock up on some Nike clothing and gear.

Now the guitar solo starts that will take us through the end of the ad (because the rest of the lyrics contain lines like “don’t come hangin’ ‘round my door” and “colored lights can hypnotize, sparkle someone else’s eyes” that might not make as much sense here). Both the U.S. women’s team and their younger analogues are working together like well-hydrated machines. They’re riding the team bus together, performing pre-game rituals. (We see only a few seconds, but there’s no telling how long these would go on before an actual practice or game. In his article “The Secret World of NBA Daps” Scott Sargent details elaborate pre-game routines that last as long as 90 seconds, the maximum time allowed by the league.)

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Hands cover hearts in a scene that evokes feelings of patriotism. Is “The Star Spangled Banner” playing? We can only assume that it is, because in the spot, all we can hear is Randy Bachman of The Guess Who, still shredding. This shot also reminds us that while these team members began by getting inside one another’s heads, they’ve ended up in one another’s hearts. Just like the U.S. team, now in their jerseys, who are “Strong Alone. Unstoppable together.” They’re ready to take the field, try their hardest, and burn all of Canada’s curling rinks to the ground.

Because the two things that unite Americans, despite our differences, are our desire to win and our disdain for sports we aren’t good at. That used to include soccer, but not anymore. This ad, with its fierce glances and unabashed appropriation of a song once considered an anti-American anthem, shows just how far we’ve come. Let’s hear it: USA! USA!