Inspirational Advertising: An Endangered Species?

“I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why, I succeed.” Perhaps the most important line from a sports commercial in the 90’s, the message behind  Michael Jordan’s Failure Commercial, one of the many he shot as part of his endorsement deal with Nike; is seemingly dead in today’s advertising industry.

Less than twenty years ago, the message in sports was one of inspiration, championed by none other than His Airness. If you failed, climb to your feet and try again to succeed, if you make a mistake, learn from it. Above all, you throw off your critics and continue doing what you love, because you can, and don’t allow anyone to beat you down, not even yourself.  These were just some of the messages behind Michael Jordan’s commercials of the late 80’s to the late 90’s.  The intention was to inspire the audience, in particular young teens that looked up to an athletic legend such as Jordan, to do their best, and to achieve success in anything and everything that they chose to do. It wasn’t about being a showman, or bettering someone else simply for the sake of doing so, it was about pushing yourself to be the best that you could be, and it was an invaluable teacher to a generation of children who are currently or who have found success in their many endeavors.

Now, just over two decades later, such inspiration is gone from today’s advertising media. The messages in today’s advertising is all centered on humor, sex, and most often, image, in relation to how other people view you as a person. For Nike, who expanded their range of sports equipment to include hockey gear, their campaigns with NHL stars prove that inspiration did not even cross their minds. Commercials done by Markus Naslund, Jarome Iginla and their fellow professional hockey players have been centered on humor and their display of skill, from avoiding pucks being shot at a hundred kilometers an hour, to skating after pucks on pavement. There is no message of inspiration for their audiences; instead it is a message of humor, the projection of an incredible and impossible image that comes with being a professional athlete. Although enjoyable, the message to have self-confidence, drive and passion that was present in the earlier commercials of the Nike era was gone.

The lack of inspirational messages extends far beyond merely Nike in sports. Sportsnet, Reebok, and TSN contribute their own set of commercials using notable NHL stars, included among them, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. The messages among these chiefly seem to be the desperation to portray such professional athletes just like everyday citizens, who play pranks, get in trouble, and enjoy doing what they love. Although the underlying intention is to have the public see these hockey players as less like Gods to worship and more like regular people, the inspirational message is still absent. Once again, humor plays a key role in portraying the image of the athlete in question in a positive light. 

Although inspiration is lacking in advertising for sports, there is evidence that it has not completely disappeared. Tim Horton’s Timbits Hockey commercials featuring Sidney Crosby have shown that not all athletes care about money, fame, and the Stanley Cup. It shows that a professional athlete is willing to spend time and energy to mentor the next generation, not to mention the inspiration that arises from realizing Crosby’s humble beginnings.

Inspirational advertising in sports may not be dead just yet, but it is endangered. Too much of the focus is on humor, image and the power of consumption in order to entice consumers. Although the underlying motivation behind advertising has always been to entice consumers to buy, much of the time there still lacks the message to encourage the audience.

Inspiration in our lives comes from many sources, many of them from those who we grew up idolizing, whether they are Michael Jordan or Georgia O’Keeffe. Unfortunately, a medium of which we used to be able to receive inspiration from, in advertising, has changed, and has nearly ceased to broadcast the messages that made a difference to past generations.

“I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why, I succeed.” Well, Michael, hopefully another twenty years from now, there will be those who will still remember your message.