Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — After years of barraging the public with snapshots of muscular women in the throes of competition and training, activewear makers have toned down the hard sell.
In the past two weeks, Nike, Reebok and Adidas have unveiled ad campaigns with a softer side. Knowing that most women don’t workout like Olympic athletes and often sport activewear outside the gym, these companies have changed their pitch accordingly.
One ad in Nike’s new print ad campaign, for example, features a close-up of a female boxer with the captions: “I wear dresses,” and “I wear muscles.”
Other firms are also using more playful images in their catalogs. Brooks Sports, a performance-oriented running line, has a full-page shot of a woman’s torso — what makes it stand out is her pierced navel and well-manicured hand.
On Valentine’s Day, for the first time, Reebok will air a commercial with tennis star Venus Williams dolled up in a variety of designer and vintage outfits. Inspired partially by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the spot portrays Williams wearing a wig and heavy makeup — drastically differently from the fierce competitor she is on the tennis court.
Like the new Nike ads, Reebok is trying to defy Madison Avenue stereotypes about female athletes. After speaking with hundreds of women, Nike found its definition of the female athlete was not broad enough, according to Jackie Thomas, U.S. women’s marketing manager.
Unless they grew up playing traditional sports, most women were more inclined to describe themselves as “active” than “athletic,” she said. Given that, Nike is showing its softer side with such tag lines as: “I paint my toenails” and “I like pink.” Nike didn’t have any reservations about portraying women with such tag lines, in light of its hard-core athletic roots, she said.
“I think muscles are sexy right now,” Thomas said. “We’ve covered a broad range of descriptions. With any ad campaign, you’re not able to make everyone happy.”
In what seems like a fairly elementary strategy, Nike’s ad campaign also features active women — not models — involved in their favorite athletic activities.
“They’re all real women,” Thomas said. “We want to celebrate all athletes and everyday women.”
As part of its new advertising, Nike also has launched and the Nike Goddess magalog. The latter will be offered later this month at NikeTown, The Finish Line and Nordstrom stores, and will be shipped to select sports-minded women like Sports Illustrated For Women subscribers.
The publication is also being shipped to the 5,500 women who work for Nike in the U.S. A few female employees were interviewed for the magazine.
Neil Simpson, head of global brand concepts and advertising for Adidas, said his brand started using athletes in lighthearted ways in commercials to distinguish it from Nike’s “exclusive” tone. The aim is to show Adidas does not take themselves “too seriously,” he said.
Consumer response to last year’s “Adidas Makes You Better” ad campaign, which featured jocks in a variety of nontraditional roles, was so strong that the company decided to update it this year. Adidas’s new ad campaign spotlights top-ranked tennis star Martina Hingis as “The Ambassador of Cool,” hitting tennis balls to control pedestrian traffic in a busy city square in Rome.
Simpson said he’s not surprised by the playfulness in the new ads.
“I hope it doesn’t turn into a trend. But I certainly understand why sports brands need to be speaking to consumers on their level,” Simpson said. “In the early Nineties, there was a much more harsh, irreverent and aggressive tone.”
This new strategy doesn’t sit well with Mary Jo Kane, executive director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. Kane said if she and a group of academics were to lampoon women’s sports in advertising for a “Saturday Night Live” skit, they could not do a better job than the athletic companies have done by themselves.
“They are using totally overt ways to identify women with traditional, feminine, heterosexual roles even though sport is the antithesis of that,” she said.
Kane criticized Nike for not portraying the hockey player, football player and runner in action, and for not showing the boxer’s muscles.
“These narratives make absolutely no sense in terms of the images presented, the sport itself or what it is Nike is trying to sell,” she said. “Nike doesn’t sell dresses, nail polish or a lot of pink clothes.”
Reebok also came under fire for playing up Williams’s femininity instead of her strength.
Kane said: “What is it that appears to be so unsettling to them about presenting women athletes as athletes?”‘

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