Giving it some stick

Advertising - Ross Diamond on a new star who is teaching the world's sporting heroes a trick or two

You may not have noticed that Nike's new "Apparel" range of clothing is being promoted alongside its world-famous training shoes in the company's latest ad campaign. Nike's new, understated approach reflects the way in which brands have become the product for global corporations. Shot on different continents and featuring sporting icons from several countries, the short films carry complex messages of cultural difference and similarity. These adverts represent global capitalism at its most sophisticated, and show how successful brands remain the same the world over, while changing their goods to suit the customer.

The Apparel campaign, now rolling across Europe, keeps to the recent Nike formula of showing sports superstars enjoying themselves, far from the giant stadia where they are more usually to be found. The Neptunes, an ultra-cool hip-hop production team, provide the soundtrack to the two new ads, which mainly feature black athletes, some of them from the NBA League, goofing about on an American basketball court, some of them players for Paris Saint-Germain, the soccer team, who are shown kicking around on the banks of the Seine. The footballers are showing off and trading tricks when they are joined by the campaign's latest star: Stickman. This simple animated figure joins in the fun, performing even more outrageous stunts than his playmates - leaving his arms hanging from the basket after a slam dunk, or swapping the football for his head in manoeuvres beyond the skills of even England's World Cup nemesis, Ronaldinho.

Nike has worked with the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy to create one of the world's best-recognised brands, and its success - coupled with disturbing stories about Nike's manufacturing processes - has made it become a target for the anti-globalisation movement, which refers to the ubiquitous Nike logo as "the Swooshtika". Nike's fortunes are closely tied to the world's image of America, and it has consistently tried to associate itself with those aspects of US culture that are most widely admired: the achievements of its black sports stars and musicians, and the exuberance of its youth culture. In recent years, however, it has been careful to add a global awareness to its marketing, by featuring, for example, the Brazilian soccer team having an impromptu kick-about in an airport departure lounge.

The Stickman ads were animated by Hy*drau*lx (crazy name, crazy guys), which filmed real athletes and subsequently spent two months in post- production adding Stickman. According to the campaign copywriter, Tim Wolfe, he represents "the battle with creativity . . . Every time he enters the court, the play-ers and game are elevated to the next level." Whether anyone outside ad-world believes any of this spiel, Stickman certainly raises the standard of sports stars' acting: their interaction with the faux opponent is seamless, and they seem to show genuine surprise and amusement at his animated antics.

So, the Nike logo can be spotted on clothes, as well as on the over-elaborate and highly stylised trainers that many of us wear, regardless of whether we are in training for the pub Olympics or the London Marathon. To understand just how deeply Nike has scorched itself into the British psyche, however, you need only wait until the first really hot day of the year. Just go out and take a look at the exposed flesh of urban Britons. An astounding number of them have chosen to tattoo themselves with the Swoosh - an uncomfortable reminder of the brutal origins of branding.