Woody's Top 10 Favourite Sneaker Ads from New SOLED OUT Book
With almost 900 vintage ads spread across 720 pages in the colossal book SOLED OUT, asking Sneaker Freaker head honcho Woody to choose his favourite 10 was always going to be a big ask. But we did it anyway, and here’s the results. In fact, he sent back 11, but don’t hold that miscalculation against him. From Drac’s Night Out to luxurious English off-roaders and wacky breakdancing shoes, here’s the devil in the detail behind some of the most brilliant ads sourced from the golden age of sneaker advertising.
We Don’t Sell Dreams. We Sell Shoes – Nike Air Max 96
Let’s face it, the Air Max 96 hasn’t gone down in history as an all-time greatest of the Air Max family, but this double-pager is nevertheless one of the coolest looks in SOLED OUT. If you loved Ray Gun magazine as much as I did, you’ll know all about David Carson, whose deconstructed approach made him a rock star graphic designer in the mid 90s. This ad might not be a ‘Carson’ (at least we don’t think it is!) but the photocopier texture (new machines at the time and hella expensive) was one of his design trademarks.
If this isn’t one of his ads, then it just shows how his gritty influence crept into the sneaker world. The headline is typical Nike at the top of their game, mixing total truth with a flourish of fantasy. Nike sell shoes, but they are well and truly in the dream business as well.
I Want I Can – adidas Torsion
No doubt about it, adidas knocked the ‘I Want I Can’ campaign for Torsion out of the park in 1989. The 10-strong (at least) series features unknown athletes alongside a steely-eyed Grete Waitz, the brilliant Norwegian marathon runner, but what really made these ads pop was the Warhol-esque woodcut visual treatment. Curiously, the fine print included a sign-off that was polite and a little downbeat: ‘If you really want it, you can’ was a somewhat limp riposte to the world-famous ‘Just Do It’. The fact that these Torsion ads still look fresh all these years later is a testament to the unique creativity of the unknown design team. Bravo!,
Our Shoes Are Better Than Your Shoes – PRO-Keds x Conquest Runner
If there’s one headline that encapsulates the entire 720-page monster book that is SOLED OUT, it has to be the PRO-Keds ad for the humble Conquest runner. Even though they were never the coolest or the biggest brand in their heyday, that didn’t stop PRO-Keds from loudly proclaiming their runners were the best. At one point I even considered ‘Our Shoes Are Better Than Your Shoes’ as a potential title for the book. If I was a high school teacher I’d give this assignment a solid D-minus for the Conquest, and an A-plus-plus for genius copywriting.
Who Said Man Was Not Meant To Fly – Air Jordan 1
The Air Jordan 1 is as official as it gets, which makes it surprising that this is the only ad we’ve seen that celebrates the rookie release from the greatest basketballer of all time. The fact that it doesn’t even show His Airness throws up some intriguing possibilities, but there’s no denying the simplicity and graceful power of a pair of Jays flying thorough the Air and off the page, above a sparse Superman-inspired headline. Some 35 years since it hit the hardwood, the original Air Jordan is still ground-zero for Nike’s ruthless domination of the basketball category.
Drac’s Night Out – Reebok Twilight Zone
One quirky curio from the golden era of sneaker advertising is Drac’s Night Out, an NES video game from 1991. Rocking huge Reebok Twilight Zones on his feet, the Count used his powers of hypnotism to nullify mobs of angry villagers before sucking their blood dry and turning into a bat. Reebok’s apparently ‘subtle’ sponsorship was reinforced by the insertion of Pump ‘power-ups’ in the game which, when gobbled up, gave our titular vampire a useful shot of ‘blood-pumping’ turbo power. Although Drac’s Night Out was never officially released, the original CD-ROM has been bootlegged and is easily found online today, where it remains a cult Nintendo classic. This surely must rank as one of the earliest marketing cross-overs between gaming and sneakers.
It’s What’s Inside That Counts – Converse
I must admit, I don’t have any personal memories of these Converse ads, but their subversive approach easily vaulted them into my top 10 calculations. With a huge shoe placed over an irreverent stream of consciousness, the ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’ series from 1991 is a unique combination in SOLED OUT. Look out for Grandmama, Kevin Johnson, Larry Bird, Jimmy Connors and Dicky Barrett, the lead vocalist from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who loves his pair of beater All Stars!
We’re Breaking Out From Coast To Coast – Vans Style #438 and #439
It’s hard to beat ‘We’re Breaking Out’ for period-correct wild style flavour. The brogued-out boxing boots didn’t turn out to be popular with lockers, poppers and b-boys, but at least we have visual evidence these crazy clown shoes existed. Who knew the ancient sport of breakdancing would be admitted to the Olympics in 2024?
Now There’s An Air Suspension For Every Size Budget – Range Rover x Nike Air Max 93
American muscle cars and exotic European supercars are intuitively designed to look fast even when they’re standing still, so it’s no surprise the link with sneakers was made explicit in several memorable campaigns. This random contribution to the canon arrived courtesy of Range Rover, who incorporated Nike’s new Air Max runner into the promotion of their top-of-the-line County LWB model. The copy could have come straight from the new Apple Mac Performas whizzing away at Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s advertising agency, though it did lack a touch of their trademark pizzazz. Phil Knight must have been chuffed with the comparison between his $75 sneakers and the luxurious English off-roader.
Go Where You Feel Most Alive – adidas Badlander
Some of the greatest ads score a TKO with a killer headline, while others rely on a big name athlete to project superstar status. In the case of the adidas Badlander, this image was part of a series that ‘butterflied’ shoes over a double-page spread, much like a sneakerised Rorschach inkblot. This outrageous outdoors beast was officially part of the Equipment line-up, though it bears little resemblance to the expensive runners in the same EQT stable. Cool, crazy and bad-ass to the bone, the Badlander would still rock melons today.
Just Doing It Doesn’t Do It – ASICS
The first Air Max ads played on the futuristic ‘Shock’ value of Tinker Hatfield’s groundbreaking design, and the immediate response from Nike’s competitors betrayed how acutely conscious they were of Air technology. ASICS tried to fight back by lampooning Air as being inferior to their own GEL cushioning. They also rolled out an entire series laced with smack-talk like ‘Just Doing It Doesn’t Do It’ and ‘Air VS Air Conditioning’, which features the Nike Windrunner above the ASICS GT-COOL. Today, GEL is still a very big deal at ASICS, but these Nike-baiting ads are a literal legacy of an era when brands were not afraid to call each other out.
Two Ways To Go To Court – Nike Franchise
Aside from a Converse All Star appearing in a Nike print ad, there’s way more going on in ‘Two Ways to Go to Court’ than first meets the eye. The battle between both brands at this time was explosive to put it mildly. As detailed by Phil Knight in his brilliant book Shoe Dog, a nondescript letter he received in the late 1970s was actually a $25 million invoice for import duties, which would have bankrupted his young company. The sneaker business was bareknuckle tough and Knight laid the blame squarely on political machinations instigated by his rivals at Converse. After intense lobbying and a costly legal battle, the case was settled. Fast forward to 2003, when Converse is acquired by Nike for $305 million. Today, Converse turn over $2 billion, making the deal an absolute bargain. Phil Knight has a famously long memory and this surely must have been the ultimate payback!
SOLED OUT is published by Phaidon and will be hitting shelves worldwide from October 20, 2021. You can pick up a copy now from our shop or stay tuned for our full Where to Buy list to find your closest independent retailer.