Commentary

Inspiring Olympic-Themed Inspiration Inspires Marketing

The Olympics commence tonight, and you know what that means: It’s time to get inspired by inspiration!

Technically the Olympics are about elite athletes, a non-small percentage of whom aren’t chemically enriched, attempting to best one another on one of sport’s grandest stages. But you and I both know that it’s less about skill and ability than it is about grit, effort and wanting-it-more-iness. It’s about overcoming obstacles and winning by sheer dint of will. Just a guess here, but we’ll probably be treated to a story or two about competitors who overcame hurdles both physical (clubfoot, miner’s lung, etc.) and personal (a slightly emotionally distant parent) to flourish as athletes.

Gosh, I’m inspired just thinking about it. To put y’all in a similar frame of mind, here is my official ranking of inspirational Olympic-themed brand videos. They’re ranked from least inspirational (this makes me want to READ A BOOK WITH WORDS) to most (I just reserved an airline ticket to Philadelphia, where an Uber will be waiting to whisk me to the Rocky steps).

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5. Coca-Cola, “Feelings”: This one lost me precisely three seconds in, when, after a brief sequence in which a sprinter blows away the competition, it flashed GOLD IS A FEELING on the screen. No, it’s not. It’s a color, metal or RIAA certification. Excitement is a feeling, and one that can be conveyed far more effectively than via stock footage of athletes celebrating and nice-looking people swigging Coke in non-Olympic settings.

Imagine being tasked with selling soda in this health-conscious era (compared to past ones, anyway)? Campaigns from Coke, Pepsi and the like used to be events. Now they’re objects of pity.

Inspiration equivalent: A de-elasticized sock.

4. Procter & Gamble, “Thank You, Mom - Strong”: This one, in which a bunch of Olympians think back on the support they received from their mothers and use it to empower them during competition, has been around for a few months now. I include it here a plea to our elected officials: Please enact legislation capping the number of mom-spiration programs marketers are permitted to run at three.

I like moms. You like moms. Mr. T likes moms (did I ever share the story about the time I interviewed him? He spent 12 seconds discussing the DVD super-re-release of Rocky III and 35 minutes on his mom. Actual quote about what he perceives as his legacy: “Mr. T, he didn’t rob nobody and he loved his mother”). You can’t go wrong with a program extending thanks to moms; essentially, it’s “free ice cream for everyone! Any objections?” It’s lazy.

Anyway, in this 320th P&G clip applauding maternal sacrifice, moms are given heroic bona fides for assuring their budding Olympians that they’ll survive turbulence and shaky elevators. Another mom gets a big thumbs-up for gently suggesting to her superstar gymnast daughter that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn’t wait out a looming tornado in the backyard. That’s some seriously responsible parenting. In any event, whatever goodwill P&G glommed from its first few “Thank You, Mom” clips, it has long since disappeared.

Inspiration equivalent: Watching an American Ninja Warrior contestant wrestle with a Rubik’s Cube.

3. United, “One Journey. Two Teams.”: The central premise is a clever one: Olympians use their mad aerobic and contortionist skillz to navigate the airport environment. A runner hurdles over barriers, synchronized swimmers perform a routine in and around their budget-cabin seats, a… uh, karate guy… flips bags onto the incoming baggage carousel, etc. They do so with the enthusiasm one usually reserves for reuniting with long-lost college pals. Flight attendants greet them with beaming smiles, rather than a look that says, “This is the one who’s going to ignore the no-cell-phones-during-takeoff rule.”

That’s the problem. When most of us think of the modern-day airport experience, we think of soul-deadening security lines and fee after niggling fee. Thus the Olympians’ successful maneuvering in and around a terminal packed with blithe travelers comes across as an attempt to sell an alternate reality. I would, however, like to javelin onto a soon-to-depart plane, as one of the athletes does towards the end of the clip. Anybody have the number handy for the Make-A-Wish Foundation?

Inspiration equivalent: Fortune cookie bearing the message, “Some people think you’re okay.”

2. Samsung, “The Anthem - Rio 2016 Olympic Games”: Besides every moment involving an athlete, athlete’s sibling, athlete’s parent, coach, coach’s sibling, whistleblower or saucy diplomat, there’s no more inspiring spectacle during the Olympics than the playing of a medal winner’s national anthem when he/she receives his/her eminently pawn-shoppable bounty. The music plays and the tears start to fall. It’s stirring, at least to those of us not unjustly exiled from our place of origin. Note to Mr. Trudeau: I’ll apologize for the misunderstanding with the herbal remedy if and only if the border official apologizes for downplaying the achievements of non-Canadian power trios.

Samsung attempts to tap into this nationalistic fervor with “The Anthem,” which mashes up 20 or so national anthems into a semi-unified whole. In doing so, however, Samsung renders them atonal and shines a light on some of their sillier rhetorical flourishes (“listen to us gently with the infinite love” - on a John Mayer kick, are we, New Zealand?). Still, the video gets the theoretically-unifying-nature-of-the-Olympic-spirit thing right, and smartly links it to Samsung’s handsets by showing people beaming the supersong out to the world and other people observing from afar.

Inspiration equivalent: Watching my two-year-old insert his entire fist into his mouth. Keep dreaming big fraternity dreams, kiddo, and happy birthday.

1. Visa,The Carpool to Rio - featuring Team Visa Olympians”: This one’s a hoot. It goes against the grain, depicting an actual road to Rio (complete with minivan) rather than a metaphorical one filled with sacrifices and heartbreak and setbacks and such.

“Carpool to Rio” succeeds where most of these others have failed for that reason, basically. We all get the being-an-Olympian-is-a-rare-achievement thing, both because it’s been hammered into our heads over the years and because it’s blindingly obvious to anyone who’s ever picked up a ball or swam a lap. Visa, on the other hand, frames the Olympic journey in terms that are similarly familiar - road trip, dudes! - but far, far, far less played-out. It doesn’t hurt that this particular creative choice affords Visa plenty of opportunities to tout its ease of payment (when the Olympic road-trippers fuel up the car and stop for snacks, among others).

Granted, “Carpool to Rio” depicts the host city as something other than the near-bankrupt, be-Zika’d mess that it is, but it’s not like the Visa folks were going to end this clip with the carpoolers falling prey to some street toughs. Visa, you win the brand-video-making Olympics. If only there were a way to acknowledge this, like with a medal or something.

Inspiration equivalent: Ali lighting the torch in 1996 while Hank Aaron rounds the bases and LeBron LeBlocks the LeShot, all set to the strains of Whitney Houston singing the national anthem. And fireworks. Lots of fireworks.

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