Mythological Presence in Nike

Essay by daniel_510College, UndergraduateA-, January 2009

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The term myth contains various functions that serve to convey or display a complex idea or to stimulate a readers mind through the use of simply speech. Roland Barthes explains this concept through a rigorous study, he introduces the terms denotation and connotation. Denotation is essential in order to understand the concept of “myth”, it is the talking of the word or what is photographed, the connotation which is equally important, represents a suggestive word, or how it is photographed. In addition to these terms, a myth also contains signifiers and signified elements; these in turn hold direct correlation to what’s going on in a mythical level and what is going on in a literal level when analyzing a certain ad. In the empowering picture displayed by “Nike” a poor African-America is displayed urinating on an impoverished wall with his sidekick dog, this picture however holds intense emotional and mythological meaning, the urban setting, and the dark colors allure to great emotional dismay, yet the fact that the boy is simply urinating on the wall, against all social standards demonstrates passion, and personality, “he’s just doing it”.

The literal meaning of this picture is quite straightforward it represents man vs. society or society’s rules and regulations. According to Barthes “picture(s), to be sure, are more imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke, without analyzing or diluting it.” (294) this picture clearly demonstrates a poor boy that has nothing to lose and is subject to a very difficult lifestyle. He must fight day and night in order to survive and can only seek support through himself and his courage, a mere boy living in a world of poverty, a world of decisions, a world of adults. Being that the boy is African American, it also demonstrates the struggle of the minorities as they are often put into discriminatory positions and not offered the same freedom or privileges as other ethnic groups. The boy has basically nothing going for him, he finds himself in need of urinating, but social standards dictate that he must urinate in a bathroom. That is when the focus of the ad reveals itself, written in the wall, with blood red letters, “Just do it”. This simple term, enlightens the boy, it feeds his soul and opens a new door for him, the door of self satisfaction, to act on instinct, to act on desire. This simple term opens the door for that which is not literal, that which is mythological.

Mythological ideals seem to emulate and overflow the viewer as he witnesses this distraught picture. As Barthes deceits, “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion,” (297) showing that a picture never has a set meaning. The Nike advertisement deceits a poor child in the visual sense, but as usual it has a theme behind it. Sadness and danger seize the theme of the picture; it is represented by the ruble in the floor, the state of the boys shorts (the only clothes on his body), the extreme poverty depicted and the overall filthy setting. However in between this horrendous scene, there is a ray of hope. This ray is displayed in the words etched across the wall, these words which have become the trademark of the international giant known as Nike is what represents and takes the viewer into a mythological world, a world of signs and motifs, which by themselves mean quite little, but through what they represent hold a similar status to that of Nike. “The myth is nothing more than a political proposition;” (296) Barthes ideological ideals hold true in all senses. In the Nike ad, the author is trying to propose liberty by showing a poor boy pissing in a wall. The mythological meaning of this picture clearly outshines the literal aspects, due to the intense message and portrayal of symbols displayed by Nike.

Barthes demonstrates a keen understanding of the term “myth”, the study can be applied to any advertisement and can allow viewers to achieve a more complete understanding of the themes or motifs being represented through a mere picture. The mythical message displayed by this ad takes the form of those characteristics which we as humans deeply admire, courage, individuality, strength and passion, passion to do as one wishes without regard to those social norms that stand in our way, passion to break the walls of limits and commence life through our own path.

Storey, John. Cultural Theory And Popular Culture: An Introduction. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 2006.