A popular television commercial by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., for the line of basketball shoes sold by Nike Inc. is being turned into a spot that resembles a music video in a step that is likely to further blur the already wavy - and wavering - line between sponsored and nonsponsored content.
The new, longer version of the commercial is scheduled to begin appearing tomorrow afternoon on MTV, the premier outlet on cable television for music videos. It is to be introduced by Savion Glover, the dancer who choreographed both versions of the commercial, as part of his guest appearance on an MTV program, "V.J. for a Day."
The groundbreaking nature of the move by Nike was underscored by confusion late yesterday between the company and MTV as to whether the longer commercial would include the credits that always appear in the lower left corner of the screen when MTV shows a music video.
Those credits, which include the name of the song and the director of the music video, will not appear, said Graham James, a spokesman for MTV in New York, "to make it clear this is not being treated as programming."
Scott Reames, a spokesman for Nike, said that advertising executives there "were surprised by this" because they thought that the longer version of the commercial, scheduled to run five additional times on MTV through April 27, would include those credits to indicate that it was shot as a music video without overt selling of Nike shoes or apparel.
Later, Mr. Reames said: "It's MTV's prerogative to view this as an ad, and we're fine with that. We view the creative aspect as more in keeping with a video, but it's most important that it's seen and enjoyed by the audience for MTV and the audience for Nike, which are very similar."
The new version of the commercial, which Mr. Reames said generated among the most positive responses of any spot in the company's history, comes two months after the premiere of the original, called Freestyle, which ran as part of Nike's sponsorship of the National Basketball Association All-Star Game.
The widespread acclaim for the commercial, which sets scenes of footloose basketball players shot by Paul Hunter - a director who also films music videos for recording artists like D'Angelo, Lenny Kravitz and Jennifer Lopez - to a musical soundtrack, led Nike and Wieden & Kennedy to consider producing a longer version that would run on TV channels that play music videos.
Last month, the New York office of Wieden & Kennedy and the division of Nike that sells footwear and clothing under the Jordan brand name collaborated on a music video based on another popular commercial, called Much Respect, that came out in January and also had a catchy music-centered soundtrack. In that instance, the music video was to run not as a commercial but as part of programming on the Web site of the basketball league (www.nba.com) as well as on two cable networks: MTV2, a sibling of MTV, and BET. MTV, MTV2 and BET are all owned by Viacom Inc.
The transformation - or is it transmutation? - of those Nike commercials is emblematic of the increasing efforts by advertisers and agencies to embed marketing messages in editorial content. The goal is to avoid the reactions generated by clearly identifiable pitches, which range from indifference to outrage, and sidestep the channel-changing and page-turning that often occurs when consumers realize they are being peddled products.
Recent examples of efforts to blur the difference between paid and unpaid content include the placement of products and services of sponsors like Cingular Wireless, Reebok International and Target in episodes of the first two "Survivor" series on CBS; the centering of a plot line of an episode of the NBC sitcom "Will & Grace" on a doll of the singer Cher being sold by Mattel; and discussions among the hosts of the ABC talk show "The View," paid for by the Campbell Soup Company, that touched on Campbell products but did not acknowledge the sponsored aspects of the remarks.
The Nike basketball commercial that resembles a music video runs 2 minutes and 30 seconds and uses the same soundtrack: music by Steve Brown and Africa Bombatta, known for the "Planet Rock" funk-music tune of the 1980's, augmented by sound effects produced by the players mixed in by Jeff Elmassian of Digihearit, a musical editing company. The original Freestyle commercial ran 60 seconds and was subsequently shown in two shorter 30-second versions.
The longer commercial, like the shorter predecessors, features professional and amateur basketball players showing off their moves to a musical soundtrack derived from the sounds of the game, from the squeak of sneakers to the percussive beat of the ball hitting the floor.
The commercial that resembles a music video includes some parts from the original commercial, shot in January in Los Angeles and Toronto, along with additional scenes shot two weeks ago in New York. The cast members are the same in both: so-called streetball players, talented amateur basketball stars, who perform along with professional N.B.A. players. The pros are Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors, Darius Miles and Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Clippers, Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings and Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trail Blazers.
"It's a cool concept," said Mr. James of MTV, "with talent relevant to our audience."
The longer commercial in the style of a music video also included women, which the original did not, along with more streetball players. The original commercial was not overtly product-focused but ended with a Nike "swoosh" logo in the lower right corner of the screen. The longer version of the commercial has only one moment that can be deemed overtly commercial, when a player thrusts into the camera a basketball bearing the swoosh logo.
"It doesn't have any shoe shots," said Hal Curtis, a creative director and art director at Wieden & Kennedy, who produced both versions with his agency partner, Jimmy Smith, a creative director and copywriter. "It's more about celebrating the game."
"We were interested in something that would turn kids on to basketball so they'd pick up the ball and play," Mr. Curtis said. "We wanted to communicate that basketball is a game about freedom and self-expression and individuality.
"It seems to rise above selling a sneaker," he added, "though obviously that's what we want to have happen."
MTV routinely edits the more clearly commercial elements of the music videos it plays, blurring logos or brand names of products. That is fascinating because music videos are in and of themselves commercials for the songs they feature.
In MTV programs like "The Real World," logos and brand names are usually blurred - unless they are of products that pay fees to be placed on camera.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. April 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.