william s. burroughs nike ad

Update: Here’s the video:

This is the most detailed description of the commercial I could find online. I recall once finding a more detailed description, without commentary, but I can’t find it now. It may actually have been in a book about Nike, not online.

In the first scene of the ad, a child wearing Nikes and playing basketball with friends runs over to a tiny hand-held television sitting on the ground and turns it on. Burroughs appears on the screen saying, “hey, I’m talking to you,” while the boy runs off. This scene emphasizes most of the major themes of the commercial. Burroughs appears on a TV on the TV and is thus contained by technology. The commercial’s repeated refrain–“the purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain but to serve the body”–highlights a conflict between mastering and serving technology, and Burroughs is clearly the subject rather than master of technology. The boy, however, who turns on the diminutive TV, small enough to be easily be handled by child, is in control of technology and thereby of Burroughs as well. Furthermore, the child runs off, back to his sports despite Burroughs’ command, showing contempt for the older generation and particularly for its failure to master technology in relation to sports.

Burroughs then continues to appear on TV screens throughout the commercial’s series of quick-cut images of young athletes and of high-tech computer graphics of Nike designs. The athletes themselves are portrayed primarily as body parts, intensifying the focus on humans as athletic machines, or on TVs which shake when they appear on the screen, again emphasizing that technology can’t contain or control the young and powerful. The TV screens containing Burroughs are either shown in a stack (stable and unshaking, unlike those containing the youthful athletes) or placed on the playing fields, in which case they are doused with dirt as a baseball player slides into second base, swept off the street by a hockey stick, tossed aside with sand as a longjumper lands, splashed and shorted out by water as a jogger runs through a puddle. This re-emphasizes contempt for the older generation and shows that it’s the strength, athletic limit-breaking, and mastery of new technology (i.e., the computer-designed Nike shoes) that sets the young above the old. This then identifies the next major theme of the commercial: both Burroughs and the athletes are rebels. Burroughs’ narration admiringly speaks of the ability “to make anything possible” and to do “more that what was done [or] thought possible…put the beyond within reach.” So the mastery of technology (again, Nike shoes) has made the young into limit breakers that previous generations of rebels may admire but cannot themselves equal.

Burroughs’ admiration throughout the abuse and contempt he receives comes off sounding obsequious. In the final scene of the commercial, after the static caused by the runner disappears, Burroughs takes off his hat and bows his head in an image both of obeisance and emphasized baldness, age, and fragility.