14 June 2010

The Beautiful. Gamed.

As the World Cup commercial build-up finally gives way to the football, there's a danger we might be distracted by the sport from our primary duty of buying stuff because there is a football tournament happening. Mindful of this, Mars is suing Nestle for infringement, because it claims its commercials imply an official sponsorship of the England team, a role Mars presently holds. Interestingly, the (Adidas) boot was on the other foot four years ago, when Mars was sued for insinuating a commercial relationship with Team England where none existed.

Yet on the global stage, some of the World's biggest brands are doing the same thing with breathtaking chutzpah: Pepsi and Nike use their stable of Brand Ambassadors to create some of the biggest World Cup-related advertising, without needing to pay a penny to FIFA for the privilege, such is the power of their stars' image. But what irritates me about this is the culture of expectation this generates, which takes these ads beyond merely brand promotion, as though they are a part of the fabric of our culture. No longer a sideline to the main event, they herald it like John the Baptist, and are listened to almost as reverently - it's as though the World Cup isn't real until we have had the honour of being sold to by the mega corporations.

First out of the blocks this year was Nike, undercutting Adidas as official sponsor of the World Cup with a 3 minute 44 second piece of homage to the central role of commerce to the beautiful game (click here to see the full ad). Nike's nominal message "Write your future" comes over as "Write your cheque", as a parade of the world's biggest football stars play out a story of triumph, failure and redemption on a football field, whose actions ripple across the world and into their bank accounts. Apart from the technical prowess of the story telling, and multiple, shifting narratives juxtaposing the players' private battles with the national mental equilibrium back home, it tries to get inside the minds of the world's top footballers.

And what a place that is. Wayne Rooney (above), apparently, will chase down 60 yards of pitch, just to stop Frank Ribery getting his own poster campaign, and having to live in a trailer sporting an enormous beard. Ronaldinho hopes one day to be the inspiration for a QVC video best-seller. And as for Ronaldo - only the prospect of a 50-metre high platinum statue is going to make him hit that free kick into the top corner. Though in his case, I can actually believe that may be true.

Commercial sponsorship is nothing new in football, and I remember the stars of my own childhood mugging for the camera to push a new football boot or aftershave. But if they were lucky, they might have earned over a professional career what Rooney will earn in a season. They played along for the sake of their pension. Given the vast wages already commanded by the elite stars of these ads, the earnings must be secondary to the honour of being part of a celebratory event - after all, they don't just smile and hold the label to camera, they are required to actually act in these 3-minute epics.

Maybe as an alternate ending, we could cut back to Rooney, still living in his trailer because he misplaced one pass (obviously), who still steps outside to torture himself by looking at a poster of his nemesis Ribery (naturally). The camera pulls back further to reveal the caravan is on the edge of an African shanty town, and we see troops of children walking to their jobs at the factory manufacturing certain branded sports equipment for 50p a day. Write your future, kids.