Nike’s latest epic soccer commercial, released this week in anticipation of Euro 2016, is a highly entertaining six-minute short film starring Cristiano Ronaldo and a plot device that, at best, is a cheap ripoff of Freaky Friday, and, at worst, makes light of the brain-altering head injuries that threaten the future of the game.
The ad, entitled “The Switch,” hinges on simultaneous concussions suffered when Ronaldo dives into the stands and crashes into a young fan. They both tumble to the ground and sit up clutching their heads. You can guess what comes next. The body of the world’s greatest player is magically inhabited by a kid who can’t drive, and the kid suddenly becomes the hottest soccer prodigy in England.
Nike has established a tradition of producing star-studded, almost-Hollywood-caliber soccer ads, and this is among the better ones. Still, using a concussion to propel the story is a poor choice for a company that has a pretty big financial stake in convincing people that soccer, and any other sport their kid might need sneakers for, is safe.
According to one study of high-school soccer, players suffer concussions about half as often as their football-playing peers. For female athletes, soccer is the second leading cause of concussion. For male athletes, it’s fifth. Late last year, U.S. Soccer responded to a proposed class-action lawsuit with a series of rules aimed at protecting the brains of young players. The rules banned heading for players 10 and under and reduced headers for players 11 to 13, while loosening substitution rules.
Stats on concussions in professional soccer are harder to come by, in part because the sport’s governing bodies have been dragging their feet on addressing the issue. Independent researchers have looked at the effect of head injuries on pro players, though. One study that included active Dutch players found that “participation in professional soccer may affect adversely some aspects of cognitive functioning.”
Nike’s glib approach to concussions in its latest ad is all the more surprising considering how easy it was to avoid. The long history of body-switching movies provides plenty of models. Ronaldo and the kid could have put on a mystical pair of ancient Abyssinian earrings at the same time, shared some enchanted fortune cookies, or, the most obvious method, crossed streams while peeing in a public fountain.
Someone in marketing needs to use the old noggin.