Ooh, Interesting! - When Nike Misspoke

April 08, 2016

With the arrival of yet another Friday comes yet another Ooh, Interesting! blog of fascinating facts. Surely we’ll run out of them eventually? Well, maybe not. We’re still going strong over six months after we started this feature and there seem to be an incredible number of facts from the entertainment world to sustain us for another six months. Today, we are looking into the world of speakers and speech, primarily looking at an ad campaign by Nike from 1989.

Cast your mind back to the late eighties. Big hair and shoulder pads were the norm, anyone with a mobile phone had to carry a suitcase to make it portable and Donald Trump had pondered running for President the previous year (no, really!) Meanwhile, in the Nike offices, they were busy putting together a new ad campaign to quite literally make their brand global. At least, in the eyes of the consumer anyway.

The idea was a simple one. They would show various people around the world going about their day as they always have, but now they’d also be wearing Nike footwear. In the print campaign, like the one shown below, they’d explain the idea in English and leave the rest of the text in the native language of whomever happened to be on the poster. In this case, the Samburu tribe of Northern Kenya, nomadic cattle herders, are shown with their new trainers, having previously hunted barefoot. The text is in Swahili and attempts to sell the shoe, explaining that the ‘Samburu people have found shoes which their hearts desire. It’s called Nike.’ Nice work, advertising folk!

 For the print campaign, there wasn’t a lot that could go wrong and indeed, there’s nothing with the ad above. Well, apart from the fact that the Samburu people don’t speak Swahili. They speak Samburu, which linguistically speaking is more closely linked to Maasai than Swahili. But hey, Swahili is spoken by tens of millions of people in the world, Maasai is only spoken by a million and Samburu is only used by 250,000 people. So we can certainly see why Nike went in the direction they did. Unfortunately, for the filmed campaign, you can’t exactly teach the Samburu tribe to speak Swahili, so Nike simply allowed them to speak in their native language. Barely anyone in the US would be able to tell the difference anyway, and if they could, who cares? The main message of the ad would remain the same.

The only problem for Nike was that it’s a bit difficult to translate Samburu, especially in terms of getting a tribe to do what you want them to do for a television advert. Still, they went ahead and filmed it anyway, on location in Kenya. The finished advert combined shots of dancing men and women alongside the vast Kenyan landscape and of course, the colourful new Nike ‘sneakers’ on their feet. In closing, the Samburu tribesman then turns to camera and utters the infamous words, "Just Do It" in Samburu. Nike then overlays the words in English to conclude the advert. Perfect.

Considering that over 25 years later Google Translate still can’t translate Samburu into English, one can understand the difficulty of making sure the tribesman said exactly what you wanted him to back in 1989. And this was the problem the crew had. But having difficult in communicating with their main actor, they simply wrapped the advert and headed home. As a spokesperson for the company noted years later, “We thought nobody in America would know what he said.”

Unfortunately for Nike, according to the New York Times, one person did know what he said. Dr. Lee Cronk, an anthropologist at the University of Cincinnati happened to catch the advert on television and as luck would have it, had spent two years with the Samburu people, learning about their tribe and experiencing their culture. He knew what they had said and as it turned out, the big finale to their advert didn’t say “Just Do It” at all. No, at the climax of their commercial, the tribesman turned to camera, shoes aloft and says, “I don’t want these. Give me big shoes.”  

This of course is not quite the message that Nike were looking for and unfortunately for us, nobody knows if the man ended up receiving bigger trainers.

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