Always Learning: Nike, Caster Semenya & gender identity

June 26th, 2019
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“We all have purpose, and I believe that each of us has an assignment we’re here to complete.”

These are the wise words of Caster Semenya, the legendary South African middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist. This bold, unapologetic athlete has created a new gold standard for grace under fire. When I listen to and think about Semenya’s story, not only is it inspirational but it holds profound lessons for marketers about women and marketing — and about how complex identity is.

Semenya has borne the brunt of frequent and clumsy efforts by sports-governing bodies to develop gender divisions that are ‘fair’ to all athletes. Ever since she arrived on the scene over a decade ago, she’s been constantly subject to public scrutiny related to her gender. Her career is a reminder that, when people challenge perceived ideas about masculinity and femininity, their bodies may become public domain.

Caster’s response to all of this? “I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

Successful marketing to women

If you want to understand how to market to women successfully, take a look at how Nike has transformed. When it came to Semenya, Nike took the bold step of supporting the athlete’s struggle, by continuing the brand’s “Just Do It” and including her.

This glorious ad — which won a Bronze Glass Lion for Change in June 2019 — tells Semenya’s story, from her very first steps as a baby to the first time she crossed the finish line in an international race to win gold. The voiceover, her own, asks some uncomfortable questions:

“Would it be easier for you if I wasn’t so fast? Would it be simpler if I stopped winning? Would you be more comfortable if I was less proud? Would you prefer if I hadn’t worked so hard, or just didn’t run? Or chose a different sport? Or stopped at my first steps?”

The ad ends with a defiant statement from her: “That’s too bad because I was born to do this.”

I don’t know about you but this work fills me with courage, inspiration and joy. Because it is hopeful. Because it champions a human that I relate to and whom I admire.

Horrific stereotyping

But Nike hasn’t always made content that I admire. About twenty years, it created an ad that stereotyped women horribly. Take a look:

Nike "Horror"

In a nutshell, the Nike/Sports ad is classic fear-based marketing. The ad follows a pretty standard horror-movie trope: a woman alone in a deserted house in the woods is attacked by a masked, chainsaw-wielding maniac. She screams and runs into the woods, followed by the killer. After much screaming and running, he staggers breathlessly to a halt as she escapes. The punch line reveals the intent of the ad: “Why sport? You’ll live longer.”

While the woman escapes and the killer is foiled (and the payoff line could be interpreted as light relief), the ad embraces fear as a tactic to sell. Without the context of a horror movie, this ad bombs spectacularly. The problem? Nike was attempting to poke fun at movie genre but, unfortunately, simply reinforced a stereotype of women as victims in an age where females ongoingly have to face the threat of sexual violence.

If you want to create good content for women, the first thing you need to realise is that gender is complex and that we live in a world where society is renegotiating social, economic, cultural, political and commercial boundaries. Times, thankfully, have changed, but there’s still a lot of marketing content that hasn’t kept up with the pace of this empowerment — despite there being numerous tools, policies and guides that we, as marketers, can engage to challenge stereotypes.

Great initiative

A great initiative comes from the Unstereotype Alliance which makes it easy for marketers worldwide to check for gendered stereotypes that may unintentionally work its way into content. Called the Unstereotype Metric, this tool is free for any brand or agency to use.

Remember, though, that the bottom line to great content is understanding, and understanding customers requires research. Before heading out with any content creation initiative, at the very least you need to understand your audience, and the contexts they live in, to achieve relevance and resonance. In this way, brands can engage instead of upsetting and alienating.

Nike has come a long way in the last 20 years. When I watch the Semenya ad, it inspires me as a mother and as a human. This is because hope lives at the heart of this campaign. A hope that one day we will all be accepted for who we are and how we choose to identify.

First seen on MarkLives

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