On the plane the other day, I fell into conversation with a guy from Nike. (The first rule of anthropological engagement: talk to everyone, all the time, about anything they will talk about.)
He told me that a new way Nike creates meaning for the brand is through a process called "curation." A creative team from Beaverton takes a sport and dives into its history and material culture. They are as curators examining the material remains of the game. In the case of soccer (football), they went to England to visit a famous public soccer pitch. They found a sign in the clubhouse that read something like "no boots in the shower."
Perfect. "No boots in the shower" is going to appear on packaging. It may appear in advertising. It’s a phrase that captures the ambience of men’s sports: the hectoring tone of the club house, the sheer density of the male athlete, the inextinguishable need to spell out the obvious.
You could put 100 creatives in a room for a week and a half and not get something half as good, half as funny, half as unpredictable. And that why it’s such a potent means of meaning manufacture. Traditionally, brands have taken a different road. If they needed to evoke the "rough integrity" of a soccer pitch, the creative would summon it with an ad. (This process was brilliantly examined by Michael Arlen in his study of an AT&T ad.) The pitch would be brought to life by a process of quite remarkable evocation: soccer as we know it, or wish to know it, or once knew it. Nike now contained a concept of the game. The brand was richer, more interesting, more powerful.
Trouble is, this doesn’t work the way it used to. We look at even really fine evocations of a soccer pitch and we are inclined to find them a little predictable, pallid, jejune. "Fine, another ad." "Lovely, soccer, whatever." There is, on the other hand, something about a sign that reads "no boots in the shower" that gets the job done in a new and eye catching way. Suddenly, we are "right there. "This must be the real thing. No roomful of creatives could make this up. It rings with authenticity.
But before we begin an analytic delirium worthy of Stuart Ewen or Naomi Klein, let’s point out that there is no such thing as an historical or cultural bedrock, no really real real, as it were. In fact, we know that no notion of soccer is more authentic than another. Each notion is cultural peculiar, invented and insisted upon. If you doubt me, summon up an image of the "knees up" way an Englishman runs. This has to be an invention because no human being with a trace of natural ability would run this way otherwise. It’s culturally invented and then policed. English kids still yell "knees up" when you run past them (at least they did in Cambridge 20 years ago).
If the phrase "no boots in the shower" has a certain power, if it improves upon the classic advertising treatment, it’s because it is too quirky not to have come from real life. We know that something like "curation" must have happened here, that Nike has made contact with some actual version of the game, and not merely the "creative stylings" of Wieden and Kennedy.
Naturally "curation" isn’t anything like the museum version of this activity. But as a means of meaning manufacture, it’s pretty good. It takes the "retro treatment one better, by digging into the actual bits and pieces of the cultural debris field. Budweiser is now running ads that are or appear to be antique and they are now using a can design from the 1930s. And as a meaning making strategy, curation multiplies the aesthetic possibilities open to us. It gets rid of that modernist embargo on things that are old fashioned and "out of date."
Plenitude just found a new faucet.