In terms of Cialdini’s (2001) work, this Nike ad can be said to make strong use of the weapons of ‘liking’, ‘social proof’, and ‘authority’. Cialdini summarises the rule of liking by noting that “we most prefer to
say yes to the requests of people we know and like” (2001, p. 144). The ad portrays Prefontaine in ways designed to make him appeal to a young audience who like to do things differently. The narrative starts by talking about the obstacles that Pre faced in his early years – he was seen as “a kid that was too small and not fast enough”. We all think that there are obstacles set against us in our life and this makes Pre seem similar to us. As Cialdini reminds us, “we like people who are similar to us” (p. 150). Portraying Pre as an underdog from a small town who is not a ‘natural’ runner but nevertheless goes on to be a champion is a story that appeals to a large audience because it makes the protagonist ‘normal’ and closer to us. When the voiceover says that “Pre wasn’t a runner, he was a rebel” we see that Nike is trying
to make Pre (and therefore the brand he is being associated with) appeal to people who self-identify as ‘rebels’. Many people, especially young people trying to make their mark in life, feel that the world is against them. Making Pre a rebel is an attempt to portray (or position) him as something desirable in a young viewer’s mind. Pre’s story, as described by Nike, is about someone sticking to their convictions and this is something that we are taught from a young age is an admirable quality. This is a rhetorical use of ethos, or persuasion from the proof of character (Aristotle, 2004). Nike demonstrates Pre’s determination and talent, personal qualities which amplify his ethos, and therefore his persuasive credibility. In turn, Nike’s praise of Pre amplifies its own ethos, because it aligns itself with these admirable qualities.
The ad uses ‘social proof’ in the way that it establishes the fact that Pre was admired by many people. First we find it in the phrase, “they called him, Pre” – implying that Prefontaine was known to a large group of people who gave him a nickname. Then the voiceover talks of how he was a man that would cause people “to stop and say ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before”’. This phrase uses the weapon of ‘social proof’ upon the viewer – it makes the viewer think, ‘if other people thought Pre was such an amazing runner, then I should admire him too’.
Finally, at the 17 second mark we see footage of Pre running with the USA Olympic shirt on. This ele- vates him to the status of an authority, an expert, in matters of sport and training. Cialdini (2001) writes about the way in which human society trains us to defer to those in positions of authority or who are ex- perts. An Olympic runner is an authority in the field of running. Nike makes running shoes. Nike uses Pre’s image to transfer the authority of an Olympic athlete to the brand. In an interesting twist, Nike describes Pre as a rebel. As mentioned above, for many of us a successful rebel is an admirable authority figure so Nike is covering its bases, using appeals to authority, but also making Pre the type of figure that would be attractive to those who bridle against authority.
There are a number of rhetorical techniques that are used to strengthen the persuasiveness of the ad. First, we should note the use of alliteration, “a figure in which the first sound of several words is the same” (Smith, 2003, p. 140). “He was a kid from Coos Bay, Oregon”, alliterates on the ‘k’ of ‘kid’ and the hard ‘c’ of ‘Coos’. The word ‘kid’ is then repeated in the next line, establishing a slow rhythm which is then echoed by many other repetitions in the piece. “The man who…”, for example, starts two consec- utive sentences and acts as an epanaphora giving rhythmic emphasis to the sentiments expressed in the words (Smith, 2003). Once a rhythm is established by a speaker it often lends a sense of inevitability to the argument, because we expect the rhythm to continue. The audience may also focus less on the mean- ing of the words, or be less critical of them, because they are lulled by the attractiveness of the rhythm.
The last line, as well using alliteration on the letter ‘r’, also establishes a form of antithesis, which “takes pairs of terms opposed as contraries, contradictories, or correlatives and puts them in parallel phrases” (Fahnestock, 2011, p. 232). It is often used in arguments “when the rhetor wants to draw stark contrasts”. (Fahnestock, 2011, p. 233). It also makes the phrasing easier to remember. The antithesis between being “just a runner” and a “rebel who happens to run” helps to make the inspiration of the ad resonate beyond just running. Often, people who wear Nike clothes don’t wear them to do sports, they wear them for fashion. The antithesis persuades the audience that Pre would be a rebel in everything he did, not just in running. This means we don’t have to run to be a rebel – we can be rebels through what we wear, too. For those familiar with the Prefontaine backstory, the antithesis rings true in that Pre was seen by many in the professional athletics world as a rebel for openly endorsing a particular brand in the days when sponsorship and endorsement were not a normal part of athletics (Jordan, 1997).
When the voiceover says Pre “ran like fire everyday” we see the use of a simile. Pre’s speed is being compared to a natural force, like fire. This helps to increase the vividness and strength of the message and make us admire Pre’s ability even more.
At the end of the ad, when Prefontaine’s dates appear, we realize that this is a piece of epideictic rhetoric – an encomium or praising of someone or something (Aristotle, 2004). Nikes use the ad to praise the memory of Pre but at the same time it uses the association to praise itself because the core of its praise for Pre is that he ‘just did it’. He is a personification of the Nike spirit.
As noted above, the ad’s praise of Pre forms the core of its logical argumentation. The logos (Aristotle, 2004) in the ad can be outlined as follows: 1] Pre overcame obstacles in his early career and ‘Just did it’
2] He went on to great success 3] This demonstrates his praiseworthiness 4] In parallel, this also demon- strates the praiseworthiness of Nike, whose slogan is ‘Just do it’.
The argument uses inductive logic. Pre is a specific example of the correctness (the praiseworthiness) of the ‘Just do it’ philosophy, therefore proving its general applicability.
We might also say that Nike uses a ‘positive’ version of the ‘guilt by association’ fallacy (Smith, 2003, p. 127). It is not logical to say that those who are associated with good people are therefore themselves good, yet that is how Nike’s praise of Pre is designed to reflect upon itself.
To make the argument more convincing, the visual components of the ad are compiled from amateur and ’newsreel’ footage of Pre’s youth and professional life. The poor quality and shakiness of some of the footage helps the message because it increases the impression of veracity – these seem like visual ‘facts’ that help to support the truth of the argument and are therefore examples of what Scott (1994) calls ‘visual rhetoric’.
The praise of Steve Prefontaine that constitutes the bulk of this ad is designed to appeal to an audience who respect the authority provided by athletic success but also respect the tropes of the underdog and the rebel. Rhetorical figures are used to establish an attractive rhythm in the voiceover text. The ad attempts to establish a connection between the life of Pre and the spirit of Nike. It is done in a subtle way, as befits an encomium, but it is nevertheless a powerful piece of persuasion.
Aristotle (2004). The Art of Rhetoric. H. Lawson-Tancred (trans.). London: Penguin Books.
Cialdini, R. (2001). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Fahnestock, J, (2011). Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jordan, T. (1997). Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend. Emmaus, PA.: Rodale.
Scott, L. M. (1994). Images in advertising: The need for a theory of visual rhetoric. The Journal of Consumer Research, 21(2), 252-273.
Smith, C. (2003). Rhetoric and Human Consciousness: A History. Prospect Heights. Ill.: Waveland Press.
He was a kid from Coos Bay, Oregon.
A kid that was too small and not fast enough.
They called him, Pre.
The man who caused people to stop and say, “I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.”
The man who ran like fire everyday.
But Pre wasn’t a runner, he was a rebel who happened to run.
[copy on screen: ‘Just do it’, with Nike swoosh].
Splash screen, black background, white copy: “Steve Prefontaine, January 25, 1951 – May 30, 1975”.