Air Max Nikes brought to you by Burroughs
by Kevin Murphy
Remember when William S. Burroughs was featured in a Nike commercial? Neither do I, but fortunately for us the internet does.
Here it is, in all its confounding beauty.
Or maybe it’s not confounding at all. Maybe a frail postmodernist was the perfect spokesman for a campaign targeting sporty young people …
The pairing made sense, anyway, to Timothy S. Murphy, whose book, Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs, serves up some interesting details on how this unlikely union came to be.
In July of 1994 Nike, the Seattle-based manufacturer of sports shoes, began to run a series of television, billboard, and print advertisements around the entire U.S. to promote its new “Air Max” shoe line. The television ads contain much of the standard imagery that has come to be associated with sports-related advertising: muscular athletes — mostly African American males (including Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan) — dressed in form-fitting workout gear; funky rhythm and blues musical accompaniment; rapid, MTV-style editing; and semi-reflexive images of television screens within television screens. But they also contain something quite alien to the cliches of sports ads: the face and voice of William S. Burroughs. Burroughs speaks the advertising slogans written by Jean Rhode, the copywriter for the campaign: “The purpose of technology is not to confuse the mind but to serve the body”; “The basic unit of technology is not the bit but the body”; and “What is technology but mind pushing the limits of muscle?” This is one of the first television ads to use a literary figure for purposes of promotion (a Gap poster series featuring Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg ran a few years earlier), and as such is worth investigating. Generally, of course, such ads use media or sports figures, who do not normally have antagonistic perspectives on the media and on corporate control, as Burroughs does. So why Burroughs?
The ads were designed and constructed by the Wieden and Kennedy Agency of Portland in order to exploit precisely those factors of defamiliarization that Burroughs would embody. For one thing, as an elderly white man, he is symbolically antithetical to the young black and Latino athletes who otherwise populate the ads, and thus he would catch the attention of viewers tired of advertising cliches — even viewers who do not recognize Burroughs (who is not identified in the ads). This antithesis is reinforced by the contrasting presentations of Burroughs, who appears as an artificial pixelated image on video screens in the manner of Max Headroom, and of the athletes, who appear “realistically” in both grainy pseudo documentary footage and “artistic” picture-postcard landscape shots. In addition, Burroughs’s growing presence in other media as an icon of “authentic” rebellion and subversion (for example. his collaboration with Cobain and his appearances in Ministry’s “Just One Fix” video, in Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy, and elsewhere) grants a hip legitimacy to the commercial “art” of television advertising design and to the company for whom he agrees to work; these ads represent the apotheosis of Burrough’s iconic cameo appearances. Burroughs has come to symbolize a certain popular avant-garde — if such a concept can be thought without self-contradiction — to the hip audience that can recognize him.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.