The “Break Free” Spec Ad for Adidas

The elderly man sits on his bed alone or at a table surrounded by others in a depressing retirement home. He gazes into space, thinking of his past glory as a marathon athlete. After rediscovering his well-worn Adidas training shoes, he suddenly tries to regain a sense of freedom by running again. But the nursing home staff cruelly blocks all his attempts and confiscates his shoes. After a while, his retirement friends help him recover them – and, with their bodies, prevent the staff from stopping him and killing his dream. The old man breaks free, runs away and raises his arms in a sign of elation.

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This emotional “Adidas Break Free” ad has spread incredibly, reaching 9,8 million views on YouTube in just a few weeks. A huge success by all standards. But the interesting fact is, it’s not an Adidas campaign.

Spec ad

This 1.40-minute video was made by students at Germany’s Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg, and written and directed by 26 y. o. Eugen Mehrer, a fourth-year film student at the academy. In other words, it’s a spec ad (meaning a “speculative ad” created by people who aspire to work in advertising) or, from another standpoint, it’s just user-generated content. Something that emerged bottom up and that the Adidas company neither promoted nor approved.

Indeed, Mehrer tried to get a green light and emailed the company, but to no avail. As he explained to Adweek, “They said that they didn’t support the work because they get lots of these kinds of requests, they already have their agencies, and they don’t really need it”.

Now this case has many talking – on websites such as Forbes and the Huffington Post and on many blogs. The success of the video is due to several things, but first and foremost to its storytelling content: the ad Hero goes from a dreary condition to fulfilling his dream, by fighting hostile forces and with the help of his buddies. (Some frames from the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest movie come to mind).

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Also, the story is not focussed on the product, it’s rather about brand values (as interpreted by the authors) and this approach is definitely on trend.

But the most interesting aspect is another one. The video is a clear example of user-generated content that proves that, nowadays, companies don’t own their narratives anymore. This is the time of narrative sharing, and the “Break Free” ad is a case in point.

Who owns the narrative

Actually, it’s very understandable that Adidas people may have a different idea of what their company should communicate to its consumers. Some online comments stating that the company behaved arrogantly seem misplaced. Other remarks, like that of a user called Smarsh on the video YouTube page, are more amusing but not necessarily correct (“Plot twist: Adidas ignored this video because they knew it’d go viral and they don’t have to spend a dime on it”).

The fact is, today web users have a say in what a brand’s narrative is, and their view should be taken into consideration – for the good reason that many customers are totally open to it. Most likely, a lot of the 9.8 million people who watched the video think this is Adidas advertising, irrespective of whether the company agrees or not.

That brings about several questions, which could be interesting to discuss: a) What is the right way for a company to deal with the various forms of user-generated content? b) What screening process can be implemented when a big company gets a large number of proposals from its worldwide customer base? c) How can a company’s communication strategy be properly integrated with external suggestions and stimuli (or artefacts)?

If you have any experience in this matter, it would be nice to hear from you.

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