A note from the author: I have zero problems or qualms with Colin Kaepernick, or the recent Nike ad I’m piggybacking on to get you to click on this article. I respect him doing his thing, and don’t have any particularly strong feelings, positive or negative, toward his ad campaign. I liked it and think it’s fine.
(The people burning their Nikes in protest and posting it on social media, though? That is objectively hilarious. True, premium comedy.)
The Kaepernick ad in question has gotten a lot of attention from political and marketing circles online for its now infamous tagline:
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Regardless whether you agree with the implication of the message, there’s no denying it’s loaded with emotion, intention and a very specific point-of-view. It’s slightly, appropriately vague, just enough so that people are able to jump on it and run with it from a number of supporting or opposing angles. Like “IHOB” of yestermonth, it’s the type of marketing move that launches a thousand hot takes.
As a copywriter, I thought it was alright, but it didn’t really do that much for me either way. It was pretty predictable (almost too predictable) from the second Nike’s ad campaign launched that it was calibrated to get people talking.
As a fan of the more under-the-radar storytelling moves brands make, there was another ad that launched last week that far fewer people saw — and it hit me straight in the heart.
So while you’re talking about Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad, I’ll be over here geeking out about Shaquem Griffin’s.
Because it’s textbook, evocative, Falcon Punch grammar descriptivism at its finest.
Prescriptivist grammar users were not made for creative writing. They were born for legal and medical professions, where the grammar use is so intense that sentences no longer make sense whatsoever. Prescriptivist grammar users often desperately hang on to the “rules” taught to them in school till their dying day, killing any sense of fun or creativity by creating adverts that read like a terms and conditions section.
Descriptivist grammar users are generally the creative ones. They know the rules of grammar, but also how and when to play with them. They don’t particularly care when the rules are violated if it enhances understanding or clarity. As long as the message is communicated clearly…then it’s good to go.
In short: Grammar descriptivism is viewing grammar, formatting and punctuation as a fluid playbook for communicating however you need to to engage your audience. Grammar prescriptivism is Esther from HR who argues with you about who/whom and insists on rewording her sentences so they don’t end in a preposition.
What does that have to do with Shaquem Griffin’s Nike ad?
Here it is, in case you missed it the first time:
“Who would ever think a kid like me would go pro? Me.”
Isn’t it beautiful? Well, Esther from HR would have a couple of bones to pick:
“Me” isn’t a complete sentence. “Me” is an object pronoun, but the answer to the question should be the subject; thus, it should read “I would.” Lastly, “go pro” is inappropriate slang that will alienate readers who don’t know what it means.
Esther’s edit would read something like: Who would have ever thought a kid like me would become a professional football player? I would.
And Esther’s ad would be incredibly boring.
Here’s why the grammar descriptivism in this ad works so well:
- It’s conversational. The copy just works. It’s written how someone would talk, not how someone would write. In that way, it sounds like Griffin is actually saying it himself (which the first person point-of-view signifies, and the copy reinforces with its utilitarian, straightforward tone).
- It’s parallel. There’s a satisfying link that’s made between the dual uses of “me.” By coming back to the word “me,” you’re inspired by the athlete’s sense of individualism and self-reliance. (The Kaepernick ad also uses parallelism exceptionally well with “something/everything,” as a means of conveying a specific moral viewpoint.)
- It’s appealing to multiple audiences. There’s an incredible athlete behind the words on the image, but the copy is effective whether you know who Griffin is or not. If you don’t know who Griffin is (and I suggest watching the video below if you don’t, because you are missing out), just seeing a photo of a football player with one arm is enough for you to connect the pieces between the image and the words and say, “woah.” But if you do know his story — a journey that just culminated yesterday in his improbably starting an NFL game as a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks — it makes it that much more powerful.
- It’s true to the brand. This copy perfectly evokes and encapsulates one of Nike’s core marketing themes ever since “Just Do It” became a household phrase: Achieve athletic excellence, no matter what. Nike is for athletes. Nike is for athletes that do what others think they can’t. That this ad is able to communicate that tried-and-true idea in just twelve words and an image — while still being fresh in its own right — is impressive.
- Its construction of the message is as rich as the message itself. The ad’s promotion of childlike, unfettered confidence in your own abilities — hinted at by the ad’s use of the word “kid” instead of any number of other pronouns (like “person,” “guy” or “athlete”)— is perfectly and subtly rendered in the simplistic, technically incorrect usage of “me.” After all, if you asked a child a question, isn’t that how a child would respond? If you asked a kid, “Who did this?”, they wouldn’t say “I did”…they would say “me!” The way the copy is written is the message itself, in a meta way. No other words but “kid” and “me” would have worked as effectively.
And that’s what grammar descriptivism is all about, too. It’s not just about what you’re communicating, but how you’re using (and breaking) rules to make that communication as effective as possible. And Nike is incredible at it.
We could talk about any number of the Nike’s ads over the years that have used words as art to generate power, inspiration and product awareness. But the biggest example of their descriptivist prowess is also their most well-known: Just Do It.
When you hear “Just Do It,” no one ever prescriptively asks, “do what?” As short and simple as the phrase is, it’s never confusing. We all know what “it” means without having it explained to us. (Except Esther, who thinks “Just Do Sports Actions Well” is a killer slogan.)
Colin Kaepernick’s “Sacrificing Everything” ad is certainly memorable and descriptive in its own right, but for the copywriter in me, Shaquem Griffin’s “Me” ad is a perfectly calibrated piece of heaven.
Hi, I’m Seth! I really appreciate you reading my stuff, even if you just skipped to the bottom and didn’t actually read it. If you like thoughts on marketing and branding and writing mixed with personal stories mixed with satire pieces in a totally incongruent way, you’ll love following me on Medium — so smash that follow button wherever follow buttons are found.