Wait, you're about to have a girl? Hang on tight!
For Nike, Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo bring us "New Girl," a frenetic take on what kinds of projections get tossed on the mere idea of a girl from the moment parents learn their unborn child's gender.
The work opens with parents having an ultrasound. "You're going to have a girl!" announces the doctor (a woman, which, for Japan, is already a hefty message—in 2018, the country ranked last among all OECD nations for total female doctors, at a little over 21 percent).
The parents are stoked about this news … at first. Then the worries start pouring in. What's life going to be like for her? Imaginations go into overdrive, tensions spiking with the strings in the background.
As the ad progresses, the concerns are compounded by reflections from family and friends, not to mention the unending conversations between women about stuff like what this ad is actually about: Per a World Economic Forum report in 2021, the average Japanese woman's income was 43.7 percent lower than the average man's. This inequality bleeds to female athletes, who still have trouble breaking into popular "male" branded sports, like sumo and baseball.
But the pace doesn't leave us welling too long in these compounding systemic pitfalls. Halfway through, the prospective mother shouts, "That's enough! Girls can do anything!" At this proclamation, the focus turns.
Mom's water breaks. She breathes in the backseat of a car, focuses, imagines anew. Ayuri Shimano appears on an all-male pitch, knocking a baseball out of the park and through the figurative glass of an all-male board room, where the parents' hypothetical daughter looks straight at the camera and gives us a knowing grin. In the next scene, that same girl faces a formidable woman sumo wrestler. We drift into football, then tennis; the family, waiting out the labor in the hospital, cheer for Naomi Osaka.
"What will she do next?" the TV announcer wonders, as much about this unborn child—about all of us, really—as about Naomi.
Here, the ad, like that girl in the boardroom, looks lived reality in the eye and gives it a wink. After the shot of Osaka, the mother breathes through pain while imagining herself at a press conference, reminding her daughter, "When you break through, we all break through." She is flanked by a smiling Momoko Nojo, the gender discrimination activist.
"I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity," Osaka wrote at the time of her first announcement, underlining, with discomfiting clarity, how much more important the optics and economic calculus of such events are than the health of those involved. (Later, in support, the meditation app Calm offered to pay fines for tennis players who, like Osaka, also want to skip press … as well as committing to donate to a sports organization for improving youth mental health.)
Back to the ad, to the labor, to the chaotic hopes and dreams surrounding a child still struggling to enter the world. "Maybe she will … she could even … what if she becomes … ?" runs through the mother's mind, juxtaposed with a menagerie of images of female athletes. Among the many referenced throughout the piece are football player Ami Otaki, high school sumo wrestler Rizumu Kasai, wrestler Miyu Nakamura, and figure skater Marin Honda.
All this, followed by the silence after the storm. "And you, what do you want to do?" the mother finally asks the bundle in her arms.
There's so much going on in this work. Much of its power comes from a single insight: how imagination and intention can often seal the fates of people before they walk into a room, never mind before they're born. More than another red flag about inequality, this is about the power of our thoughts, and what energy they bring to bear on a person who is still brand new.
It's also worth not letting Nike off the hook. In March, W+K London made "The Toughest Athletes," which depicts pregnancy and motherhood as the ultimate athletic exertion. This did not contrast well with Nike's treatment of professional runner and Olympian medalist Allyson Felix, who, after a childbearing that nearly killed her, was offered 70 percent less on her next contract with the brand.
This, and a similar situation involving Serena Williams (not involving Nike) just before the ad came out, led to a long debate about what performance expectations are reasonable for post-maternity athletes, and what support should be provided.
Since, Nike announced a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes, guaranteeing pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy. While "The Toughest Athletes" followed that decision, it's not as if the brand did it because it was right. It did it because it was pushed, then sanctimoniously profited from the press after the fact.
There is yet a long way to go. It would be nice to not have to fight this hard. Great ad, though.