Selling Sneakers with Feminist Poetry: An Interview with Janet Champ -The Toast

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Advertising and feminism can seem like enemies. The phrase “Often a bridesmaid but never a bride” was first popularized in 1923 by a Listerine ad: The campaign heroine, Edna, sobs over a bouquet because she apparently isn’t “wife material.” (Little did she know it was just her halitosis.) But there is one real-life Peggy Olson who peddled consumer products and genuine body positivity in ads throughout the 1980s and ’90s, several leagues above today’s Dove ads that make us “insecure about our insecurities”: Janet Champ. Champ, who started as a young secretary at Portland agency Wieden+Kennedy, advanced to become the lead copywriter on W+K’s flagship account, Nike. Her feminist poetry in magazine ads sold millions of sneakers — and also made Oprah cry on TV.

“A woman is often measured by the things she cannot control,” Champ wrote for one Nike magazine ad, her words appearing alongside a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. “She is measured by the way her body curves or doesn’t curve, by where she is flat or straight or round…by all the outside things that don’t add up to who she in on the inside.”

NIKE Women Marilyn-3

Imagine reading this in Glamour magazine in the early ’90s, sandwiched between an article on sex moves that will surprise him and a guide to choosing the hottest lip gloss for your face shape. Throughout her tenure writing for Nike, Champ inspired thousands of women to write confessional letters about how her ads had changed their lives. Women called Nike and W+K to testify and framed and hung the ads in their bedrooms. Mothers handed them to their daughters and said, “This is what I was trying to tell you.”

In 1995, Champ would go on to write a Nike TV spot that aired during 1996 Summer Olympics, “If You Let Me Play”: A choir of real-life girls unable to find co-ed sports teams recited lines such as, “If you let me play sports, I will be more likely to leave a man that beats me.” Again, she received an avalanche of letters, some railing against the fact that girls still had to advocate for the right to play sports, some parents acknowledging that there were no community leagues that would accept their daughters—many thanking her for making it known.

Today, Champ continues to write copy with a collective of former W+K staffers known as Switzerland. When we spoke on the phone — Champ from her woodsy home in Oregon’s Cannon Beach — I asked her about her legendary ads for Nike, what she is working on now, and what she thinks about today’s ads.

Janet Champ Janet Champ

Rebecca Huval: Why did you want to work at W+K?

Janet Champ: I had been living in Boston, and I came to Oregon with $12 and a broken-down car. I had an English degree, and all I ever wanted to be was a writer, a real writer. I had been selling computers, but I didn’t like it. I just cared about working someplace fun. I had been an administrative assistant before, so at the W+K interview, the first thing they said was, “You’re overqualified.” I said, “I don’t care, people are having fun, and you have the radio station playing. What a cool place to work.”

I wasn’t thinking about copywriting. I was the 15th person hired there. Then they got the Honda account, and all of a sudden it tripled. I completely fell into it.

When I was in college, copywriting felt like a business, like selling something. I never thought there was a place where you could create art where it was something bigger than selling. When I looked at what people were creating at W+K, I was like, this is amazing. This is not at all what I thought advertising was. It was never a quiet, suit-and-tie place. Everyone was democratic and loud and slamming doors and having eureka moments—it felt so vivid and alive. They have this philosophy that it’s a college of advertising, not a business. If the mailroom guy has a fantastic idea, they’ll hear it.

When did you realize you wanted to be a copywriter?

I was [at W+K] for two and a half years, and I had some friends who were working on some pro bono stuff. I worked on this PETA ad, and it came out great. People were posting it all over town. Someone took the ad to Dan [her boss] behind my back. He called me into his office, and I was scared to death. He said, “You want to be a copywriter.” And I said, “Sure?”

He had me working on the Nike brand book, 30 print ads for three weeks. They put me with Susan Hoffman, an art director, and we came up with the idea of doing the “Revolution” commercial to The Beatles song. Dan made me a copywriter a month later. It was the first spot with the Beatles ever. We got sued by them, and it became a fantastic spot. Nike thought it was audacious: What’s more expensive than the Beatles? It was like saying “we’d like to do a commercial with god.”

Did you have any women as professional role models at that time?

I kinda had to go into advertising backwards. All of my heroes were authors and poets and artists. At W+K, I learned about Bill Bernbach and Lee Clow. My role models in the beginning were all men because it’s a male-dominated industry, and it took me a while to find the women.

Susan Hoffman was the first female executive creative director at W+K, and she’s a terrific role model for anybody in the business—she took W+K global. Dan and his partner were my role models, too, because it’s not about gender, it’s about having a voice and being able to use it. Yes, we’re selling a product or thought or emotion, but what we’re really supposed to be selling is the truth. I go back to the agency all the time, and it’s like walking into my home. Any place where you’re allowed to discover your personal voice, that’s where you should work.

Why aren’t there more women creatives [in advertising]? I’ve been on some panel discussions about this, and it’s a conversation that has many opinions, but I firmly believe it’s not because we’re not talented or don’t work 16-hour days or can’t be audacious. I think it’s because like hires like. Anybody in a position of power of a certain gender or ethnicity, they tend to hire people who look like them. In advertising, there are a lot of white men in power. I still know women to this day who are not promoted because their bosses think they’d get pregnant and leave. That seems like such an archaic conversation to be having, but I know women right now who are having it. I just think we should be able to get pregnant and stay.

There were many times when [my colleague] Charlotte Moore and I would be called “the girls.” We got tons of work because we were women. We were given accounts because they thought we’d have a shorthand with it. But as Charlotte and I always say, “We don’t create or direct with our vaginas, we’re just creatives.”

What made you think—yes, advertising, that’s where I can publish my feminist poetry? 

The Nike account for women wasn’t doing so well. The ads felt like a female takedown. One ad caused women all over the country to write letters and hate Nike. It was a Joanne Ernst cross-training ad, and there was this offensive line: “It wouldn’t hurt to stop eating like a pig.”

At that point, it was just, let’s do what’s right. We felt like we were talking to ourselves, and that’s what you want when you’re creating ads. You figure out who the clients and the viewers are, and in this case, the viewers were us.

Our ads did well. Nike was like, do that and be bolder. And it was like being given the keys to the kingdom. When you have a client who trusts you and says, do what you do and do even better, that pushes you. They pushed me to do the best work of my life. They allowed us to talk to people the way we would talk to each other.

A lot has changed in the last 10 to 12 years. Clients want less expensive ads, or they want it faster. They don’t want long conversations, but short bursts. The tide has to change. We have to come back to storytelling and dialogue, instead of 140-word blasts. I run into people all the time who do want to think or read in advertising. So many clients think humanity doesn’t want to go there anymore. We have to say no. Advertising is storytelling, people want to make connections with stories, so let’s keep telling them.

NIKE-WOMEN'S MOMHow did you convince Nike to let you run ads that were like feminist pep talks, without any images of its products?

I wish I could remember how. It was a fantastic thing. We called it the dialogue campaign. The one thing you don’t do is shove a shoe in someone’s face and say “buy my shoe.” You say, “I’m like you, I get you, I know you, let’s talk about this.”

They had years of conversations with male athletes. What they didn’t have is this “I get you” with women. “Let’s talk about life and fitness. We’re not just selling the shoes.” We wanted to make someone fall in love with the brand because the brand got them.

What was the public response to those ads?

We hit a nerve. At the time we did the women’s insert, there were 500,000 phone calls and letters and emails to Nike and W+K, which was unbelieveable. People were writing in asking for copies. It was insane. We did an ad with David Fincher, and then that led to “If You Let Me Play.”

How did you feel when Oprah cried over your ad?

Amazed and thrilled. If you can make Oprah cry, it’s a good day.

Women started hanging your ads on their fridges and walls. Why do you think the ads had such emotional resonance?

I think people are starved for conversation or to be known. We were lucky to say something in a medium where it hadn’t been said before. Advertising often talked at people. The ads for Nike weren’t talking at people, but talking to you.

Women and girls and even fathers called and were crying, telling me their nine-year-old girl was kicked off the boys’ soccer team, and they wouldn’t let her play. I’ll always remember this: One woman was trying to lose weight, and she was so afraid to go outside, she ran around her table and caused a groove in her carpet until she felt ready to go outside. We thought, we in advertising want to talk to you about things other people aren’t talking about.

If-You-Let-Me-Play An image from the “If You Let Me Play” campaign

How did you convince Nike to try the “If You Let Me Play Sports” campaign? What was the public reaction to those ads?

We had done all this provocative work, and then Nike started to get work that wasn’t quite as provocative. They wanted to make a splash, and said, we gotta stir things up. Let’s do something that wakes up the crowd again.

They gave us six or seven files with stats, and they wanted celebrities in the spot to draw attention to these incredible female athletes. I remember thinking, what if this wasn’t famous athletes, but little girls? What if these girls were saying these stats, and it’s about girls not being able to have a sport, or being told it’s too dangerous, you shouldn’t do that.

It was like we lit a fire. It was 90% of the audience saying, I love this, it’s the greatest thing—and 10% saying, what do you mean “let me”? Girls are just as good as boys and they can do whatever they want. It opened up a tremendous conversation about Title IX. Out of those girls featured in the spot, 20 of them couldn’t find a girls’ league to play in their neighborhoods.

I would run that spot tomorrow. I don’t think anything has truly changed. I fear that in too many schools in rural areas, girls’ sports are not given the funding that boys sports are. I have a close friend who is a lawyer who is constantly fighting to keep Title IX alive, state by state. It’s so important, with childhood obesity rising. And team sports is a great way to help any gender with anti-bullying and a sense of self-worth. It’s incredible when a kid feels like they’re a part of something bigger than they would be by themselves.

At the time, did it feel like there were many other people talking about what was wrong with women’s magazines?

We were such loudmouths we wanted to run them in Rolling Stone or Men’s Health. We didn’t read Glamour, so [Charlotte and I] put the magazines on the floor and starting reading them, and then threw them against the wall. We were so angry that it was about your bra size and not about your IQ. I’m sure there were feminists talking about it, but there was nobody talking about it in advertising. You do not bite the hand that feeds you. We were directly going after the magazines that we were in. We were saying you are a ridiculous, ridiculous magazine, now please run our ad.

What did you think about the advertising industry in the 1990s?

It was a golden era. There was so much good work coming out of agencies. It felt like there was truly a revolution in advertising. I think there’s still amazing advertising to be done. I recently got to do the Girl Declaration for the Nike Foundation and the United Nations. If we get back to storytelling in advertising, we’ll get back to the golden age.

It used to be each agency was an agency of record. Now clients are so big that they’ll give many projects away to different agencies. It gives small boutiques and large agencies more equal footing, and there’s a sense of competition in the business. There’s buzz. So I think we might be coming up to the next golden era.

What’s the most sexist ad you’ve seen recently?

There are so many. Of course beer advertising is incredibly sexist. There are so many times when women are treated like second-class citizens. Advertising talks down to men and women. We’re going through this weird phase when people think it’s better to talk down to people rather than up. When a great ad comes out, people are so surprised to see something that actually breaks through.

I think clients are taking cheap work and relying on social media. I don’t give a damn if it’s the web or print or TV, if you’re not surprising and if you don’t have something to say, I don’t care about it.



How could the advertising world do better by women?

Hire more women, promote them, pay them equally, don’t pigeonhole them with fashion ads or beauty products, let them do everything.

What campaigns have you been working on lately?

I just finished a big campaign for Zumba, and we shot with two Australian twin directors. The spot is the opposite of sexist. It’s called “Let It Move You.”

Switzerland is going after smaller projects, but I also like working with big agencies. I love eclectic, different work. Cars one week, and the next week, Old Navy, and the next week, Calvin Klein. You never know what you’re going to do next, that keeps you excited. We’re doing a bunch of pro bono campaigns to fight breast cancer in Saudi Arabia, one of the largest breast cancer-affected populations in the world. The princess wants to educate women throughout the country about breast cancer—it’s pretty fantastic.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

I’d want to really write. I’d want to open an animal sanctuary. Instead, I give my money to animal sanctuaries. But I’d like to write short stories or a novel or something that nobody is paying me to do.

How do you feel about the way feminism is used in advertising today?

Is it? I think there’s places where it’s being used, and that’s great. There’s a conversation in the media that “feminist” can be seen as a negative word to people, which is mind-boggling to me — that someone would not consider themselves a feminist — so it’s a conversation we need to keep having.

What advice would you give to female copywriters who are just starting?

Keep going. Become somebody else’s role model. Find your voice, don’t copy anybody else’s. Work on every pro bono ad that comes out there to hone what you do. Keep going, rise to the top, and hire more women.

Rebecca Huval is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

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