‘Air’ is a Deft Study in Branding, Business, and Belief
Director Ben Affleck offers an airtight underdog story with heartening performances.
At some point in my ‘20s, I realized that the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was an eloquent complaint about tone-deaf advertising.
When I’m driving in my car / And the man comes on the radio
He’s telling me more and more / About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imaginationThe ad men of the ’60s weren’t getting it. Comfy and smug with post-WWII prosperity, they’d been busy telling the new generation what they should want instead of listening to what they actually wanted.
By the mid ’80s — and many cultural upsets later — brand specialists agency-side and in-house had caught onto the fact that the youth was perhaps the only demographic they needed to engage at all costs.
And what the youth wanted was to see themselves. And the future. And to see themselves in the future — wonderfully mutated into positions of success, influence, and fulfillment that no one had dreamed of yet. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” as Marian Wright Edelman said.
That’s what good branding does: it doesn’t bother selling you a product, it sells you a feeling. This is how I know Ben Affleck’s Air nailed what it was going for. The film comes down to a 15-minute board room scene in which Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) startles himself by interrupting his own pitch to look Michael Jordan in the face and insist, “We will build you into something that doesn’t exist yet.”
It’s 1984, and Nike is far from the polished, ubiquitous brand we know today. With shoe sales in the tank, they’re one more bad season away from bankruptcy, and marketing execs are struggling to sift through NBA draft picks to find any player available for a brand collaboration. Sonny Vaccaro is stuck on considering Michael Jordan, whose performance and instincts on the court stand out to him after weeks of…