Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Buying our love, one bus at a time

Nike’s “Toronto Attack Plan” campaign – a blanket citywide advertising crusade featuring what culture bureaucrats would call local content – is wrapping up now [fall 1995], and in its three months managed to demonstrate that an international conglomerate can, in fact, give its name and its mass-produced wares a local sheen. But while the ads were often lovely to look at, they were rather less fun to read, and therein lies a lesson of the post-desktop publishing age.

For a campaign that plastered itself across 60 full subway cars, ten buses-turned-into-billboards, 40 posters in subway platforms, TV commercials, and outdoor billboards, Nike Canada and its ad agency Cossette were surprisingly reluctant to talk. At one point, Cossette demanded that this reporter appear in person at its offices, with samples of past work, to effectively apply for the privilege of covering the campaign. The Toronto Transit Commission issued vague threats about photographing its buses. Nike and Cossette eventually agreed to talk, and a TTC bus was photographed anyway.

The campaign revolved around real-world Toronto athletes (broadly defined). Ads featuring these local heroes consisted of a big photo and some staccato stats about the heroes, like “Keith (the Animal) MacDonald. Born: Toronto, September 1966. Occupation: Bike Courier. Favourite Movie: Road Warrior. Favourite TV Show: Wheel of Fortune. Favourite Time of Day: Rush Hour. Just Do It.”

You would be forgiven for having difficulty reading the text on the posters. These days Nike ads in North America have devolved into using typewriter fonts; in the T.O. campaign, that most hideous of the old IBM Selectric typewriter fonts, Orator, is at play. (Well, not the most hideous: Anyone remember Dual Gothic?) Orator doesn’t have a lower-case; it consists of small capitals and big capitals. Nike’s posters read like a tract issued by a terrorist group with a fear of full sentences. THE STYLE STARTED WITH. THE ANNOYING 1980s ABERRATION. OF CHOPPING SENTENCES. INTO “DIGESTIBLE, IMPACTFUL” BLOCKS. AND IN CAPITALS, IT HAS ALL THE PANACHE. OF A LIME-GREEN LEISURE SUIT. Worse, the T.O. campaigns feature white or red text on a black background – try reading those from a distance.

Nike Canada’s hands were tied to some extent; Orator is an official Nike font, to be found in the U.S. parent’s minimalist print ads, where the only type is an E-Z-read toll-free number. Still, Cossette’s Brian Hickling, perhaps blessed with X-ray vision, sees blue sky through the cloud. “I basically knew that it was the typeface that they had used a lot internationally, and I really thought it had the proper feel of not being like it was trying too hard. I did some experimenting with other fonts – big and small, this and that - and [with those] it felt like it was trying way too hard.”

Why reverse type? “I thought it would look a lot cooler with red type on black, which isn’t overly used too much.... I wanted it to be an art gallery. I didn’t want people to sit on their butt and try to squint to read something.” Average citizens told Hickling they read the ads by walking through subway cars and peering up close. “They weren’t designed to be something to be read from a distance,” Hickling says, and in that respect they exceeded his expectations.

The campaign’s photos are its true glory, and they too are local. The subway-car advertising intermingled “action shots” (aerobics class at Queen’s Park; Beaches Lacrosse league in action; Nike employees – pretending to be civilians – playing ball hockey in the shadow of a street sign forbidding ball hockey) and product shots that made forgettable sneakers seem to float in air (even the laces), cast multiple shadows, and glow from within.

Rick McKechnie and Chris Gordon-Neer shot the photos; McKechnie handled all the product shots and says “basically we went against pretty much anything that you would normally do with a product shot,” like producing double shadows by double light sources without the customary diffuser or softbox. The floating look was achieved by nailing the shoes to a wall, with laces taped into position – a matter/antimatter mix of opposites akin to achieving divinity through satanism. But hey, it worked.

Even with the influence of photo-manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop, photographers like McKechnie are still steeped in the methods and equipment of the glorious past – all his shots were taken on a medium-format camera using unremarkable Kodak film. The photos’ power is in stark contrast to the inbred semiliteracy of the campaign’s typography, which combines the worst features of typewriting with the illegibility and bad taste of desktop publishing. Those who do not learn the history of typography are condemned to repeat its mistakes. IN CAPITALS. Next time, kids, try photos only.

See also

Sidebar on Nike's Gordon Thompson

Homepage: Joe Clark Homepage: Joe Clark Media access (captioning, Web accessibility, etc.) Graphic and industrial design Journalism, articles, book