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					        Research Question:
 How has Nike portrayed female athletes with its print and
commercial advertisements from 1987 through the present

                                         Theresa Waldron
                                         Communication History
The Social Construction of Gender in Sports

           The topic of female athletes and their
           role in the media has continued to be an
           ongoing controversial topic, especially in
           advertising media.

                                   The advertising process first
                                    addresses the construction
  This is a proposal to see        of gender and the role of
   how Nike produced                advertising, and then tells
   advertising that                 the story of Nike’s
   challenged the media             groundbreaking struggle to
   norms affecting the roles        construct a new reality in
   of women associated with         Nike's advertising to women
   the institution of sports        from 1987 through today.
The Social Construction of Gender in Sports

    Although sports may appear to be a society with equal
    access for both men and women in the United States,
    ―research supports a gender divide that has viewed sports as a
    domain for men‖ (1).
    ―Talent, instinct, intelligence, size, strength, quickness, hard
    work, and risk taking are depicted as the basis for men's
    success, but talent and hard work take a back seat to emotion,
    family, and luck for women‖ (2).
    The media have played a significant role in this cultural
    battle of men versus women, both in constructing new gender
    roles tied to Nike advertising.
             -For example, providing coverage of more sporting
    events that appeal to female audiences.
            Nike’s Promotional Efforts:
                Men Versus Women
 ―Prior to 1987, there were no     Given that men were Nike's
  Nike advertisements directed to   primary target market, ―Nike
  women because it was believed     had a vested interest in
  it would compromise Nike’s        maintaining the roles
  authentic and serious sport       associated with the
  image‖ (3).                       institution, which favored
                                    men as participants and
 Nike had to learn to              spectators, and supported
  communicate with women. The       different media depictions for
  company assumed that athletes     men than for women‖ (4).
  would be equally strong role
  models to women as to men.
  However, women didn't treat       Traditionally, men have
  athletes as heroes in the way     dominated the consumption
  that men did.                     of organized sports, though
                                    the gender gap began to
                                    narrow in the late 1980s.
Themes of Empowerment (1988-1995)

The first advertising           Nike advertiser, Janet Champ
message that Nike                felt that the images in
created for women                advertising ―confined women
began in 1990 and                to traditional institutional roles
encouraged women to              at a time when many women
―reject traditional              were beginning to reject them‖
holds and challenged             (6).
them to be part of a
empowered by
fitness‖ (5).            "We found magazines so disgusting ... [that]
                         we made a list of what made us sick ..." (7).
      Themes of Empowerment (1988-1995)
                               In response, Nike
                               made an attack on
                               traditional women's
                               advertising in
                               spring and fall of
                               1990. ―One page of
                               a two-page spread
                               listed the things
                               that other women's
                               pressured women
                               to do, wear, or be:
                               "your push-up bra
                               ... your control top
                               pantyhose ... your
                               black anything."
                               The opposite page
                               asked women to
(8)                            challenge that list
                               with the words:
                               ―Self-Support From
                               Nike. Just do it‖ (9)
     Themes of Empowerment (1988-1994)

The Empathy
Ad ran during                                         Nike was
spring of 1991                                        satisfied that the
portraying the                                        ads opened a
―life of a woman                                      groundbreaking
from childhood to                                     future with
middle age as she                                     women that
exuded ever                                           ultimately
greater                                               empowered
confidence with                                       women to reject
the passage of                                        traditional
time‖ (10).                                           messages.

                           ―Nike understood that their ads had the power
                           to construct reality, shape culture, and draw
                           women into a ritual for change‖ (12).
       Themes of Empowerment (1988-1994)

                                                        Professor Deb Merskin states,
                                                        ―One of my favorite Nike ads of all
                                                        time includes the famous Marilyn
                                                        Monroe ad of the 90s. The fact that
                                                        Nike represented a famous actress
                                                        instead of a famous athlete shows
                                                        that Nike has power as a major
                                                        corporation‖ (14).

                                                        The ad portrayed ―a picture of a
                                                        beautiful but vulnerable Marilyn
                                                        Monroe that contrasted with her
                                                        persona as a sex symbol. This
                                                        juxtaposition strongly implied
                                                        that the unrealistic standards
                                                        contributed to Marilyn's tragic
                                                        life, and that women should reject
“A woman is often measured by the things she            those standards in favor of ones
cannot control….By all the outside things that don't    they can control‖ (15).
ever add up to who she is on the inside….And so if
a woman is to be measured, let her be measured by
the things she can control, by who she is and who
she is trying to become. Because as every woman
knows, measurements are only statistics. And
statistics lie” (13).
      Themes of Empowerment (1988-1994)

          In 1993, Nike began connecting the idea of empowerment to fitness

... ―And one day when
you're out in the world
running, feet flying,
you'll hear these
immortal words
calling, calling inside
your head—Oh, you
run like a girl. And
you will say shout
scream whisper call
back, Yes. What
exactly did you think I
was? Just do it‖ (17).    (18)                                                         (19)

                                             The ads encouraged women to be
                                             active participants in sports, in which
                                             they don't have to feel physically
                                             inferior to men.
    Themes of Empowerment (1988-1994)

Nike realized that
the new target
market of younger
women ―believed
                       (22)        Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
they had already
achieved it, even if
the rest of society,
including other
advertisers, hadn't
yet caught up‖ (20).

                         (23)                        Mia Hamm.

                                "It wasn't advertising. It was truth. We weren't
                                selling a damn thing. Just the truth ..." (21).
     Themes of Entitlement (1995-1997)
                                                      According to
                                                      Professor Deb
In 1995, Nike                                        Merskin, ―Nike
shifted its focus                                     does a great job
from fitness to                                       targeting female
sports, and                                           athletes to
believed that young                                   participate in
women should have                                     sports, especially
the power and                                         getting after a
privilege to                                          younger group of
participate in                                        females. Not only
competitive sports.                                   does the
                                                      femininity, but a
                                                      diverse group of
                      (25)                            females as well‖

                             Young women in the target
                             market "don't think about fitness;
                             they play sports because it's fun‖
     Themes of Entitlement (1995-1997)

The Nike
commercial, ―If You         ... If you let me play, I will suffer less
Let Me Play‖                depression. If you let me play, I will
highlighted the             be 60 percent less likely to get
benefits of girls'          breast cancer. If you let me play, I
participation in
sports and blamed
                            will be more likely to leave a man
society for creating        who beats me. If you let me play, I
―a system beyond            will be less likely to get pregnant
women's control             before I want to. I will learn what it
that led to negative        means to be strong. If you let me
consequences in             play sports” (28).
the past‖ (27)

     Themes of Entitlement (1995-1997)

This Nike ad
demonstrates a
women’s physical
and mental
toughness. Nike
wanted to portray
a competitive
women’s team
through close-up
images of their
faces, which
highlight the
intensity of their                                        (30)
thought process.
                     The 1996 Soccer Olympic ad is an
                     example of ―an intentional strategy by
                     Nike to make sure that male viewers
                     are not threatened by women
                     invading too far onto their turf‖ (31).
  Championship Series Themes (1998-2000)

   To accomplish this
   time period of Nike
   ads, the company
   ―loosened their
   restrictions on women
   athletes’ by telling the
   audience that the
   individual is to be
   remembered as a part
   of a community, not a
   team‖(32).   (33)   (34)
Championship Series Themes (1998-2000)
             Female Stereotypes vs. Distinction of Femininity

 Nike’s print coverage of
 female accomplishments
 demonstrate a similar trend to
 appropriate images of women
 in sport as sexy and

 The 1999 ad featured
 World Cup Soccer
 Champion Brandi Chastain
 ripping off her jersey after
 scoring the final goal. This
 ad was extremely
 controversial because it
 exploited sexuality rather
 than athleticism.

Championship Series Themes (1998-2000)
                Female Stereotypes vs. Distinction of Femininity

Although images of                                          Nike’s purpose
aggression, physicality,                                     of the photos
confrontation, and                                           were to show off
control are mix together                                     Chastain’s toned
with those of fetishism                                      body she had
and femininity, Nike                                         earned through
presents its ads in a                                        intense physical
noncontradictory way,                                        training rather
―which makes notions                                         than to promote
of both femininity and                                       any kind of sex
feminism aesthetically                                       appeal.
appealing‖ (36).


                                   ―This type of fetishism teaches us to
                                   appreciate women's bodies in detail‖ (37).
Championship Series Themes (1998-2000)
                Female Stereotypes vs. Distinction of Femininity

Another Nike commercial
ran during the 2000 NCAA
tournament. ―I CAN‖
demonstrates that women
can take on a different
approach to athletics, ―while
men sacrifice their bodies
through acts of violence and
aggression‖ (39). The
implication that Nike wanted
to portray is that it is okay for
females to appear feminine
and sensual and still     
compete with the men.

                                               …."I Can Be Strong…I Can Be The
                                               Next Jordan….Be Afraid Of Nothing…I
                                               Know I Can‖ (40).
           Product Themes (Present Day)

Nike’s marketing
spin is beginning to
focus on stronger
messages that portray
women and girls
being respected as
athletes and also
stereotypes from the


                        "It's important to hear from women who
                        overcome stereotypes, ignorance and
                        inequality .‖ –Serena Williams
               Product Themes (Present Day)

These are ads of
Nike Women in
collaboration with
Dove, celebrating the
beauty of athletic
women. Nike portrays
that ―it does not
matter how rough and
sporty these women
are, they are still
beautiful and feminine
inside and out...‖ (43)   (44)


A gender divide in Nike athletics has allowed many females to
―enjoy the financial and social rewards attached to athleticism, which
has historically been available to men only‖ (46).

Women's participation in contact sports has helped to deconstruct
the notion of masculinity and the ideology of gender difference.

Since the late 80s until today, Nike has been unfolding the
importance of female acceptance in sports and the conception that
females can participate on a male’s level of performance within its
commercials and advertisements.

                                 ―Nike continues to portray female athletes
                                 at a high level of awareness compared to
                                 other advertising agencies‖ (47).
Primary Sources:

―Just Do-It Series.‖ Mia Hamm. Sports Illustrated. Advertisement. 1994.

―Just Do-It Series.‖ Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Sports Illustrated. Advertisement. 1994.

―If You Let Me Play.‖ NIKE Corporation. Advertisement. 1995.

―If You Let Me Play.‖ Nike Corporation. Commercial. 1995.

Mia Hamm. Sports Illustrated. Soccer Olympics. 1996.

Chastain, Brandi. Gear in Sports. Advertisement. 1999.

―I CAN.‖ Nike Corporation. Commercial. 2000.

―Are You Looking At My Titles?.‖ Serena Williams. USA TODAY. Advertisement. 2007.

―NIKE REAL WOMEN.‖ Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 2007.
―Self-Support From Nike. Just Do It.‖ Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 1990.

―Empathy Print Campaign.‖ Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 1991.

―Dialogue Campaign.‖ Marilyn Monroe. Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 1991.

―Emotional Boy.‖ Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 1993.

―Emotional Runner.‖ Nike Corporation. Advertisement. 1993.

―Get Lucky.‖ Championship Series. Nike Corporation. Commercial. 2000.

―Celebration.‖ Championship Series. Nike Corporation. Commercial. 2000

Secondary Sources:

Carty, Victoria. ―Textual Portrayals of Women Athletes.‖ A Journal of Women’s Studies. 26.2
           (2005): 132-136.

Grow, Jean M. ―Selling Truth: How Nike's Advertising to Women.‖ Advertising and Society
          Review. Ed. Joyce M. Wolburg. The Advertising Educational Foundation, Inc, 2006: 90.

Interview Source:

Deb Merskin, Associate Professor of Advertising in the School of Journalism and Communication

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