Running on Empty

Advertising is supposed to make us dream. Most campaigns try to build a bridge between our personal status quo and something better through a story about a product. If the story is good, the theory goes, you’ll keep telling it to yourself.

Ads for the newest mobile technology have to tell a more complicated story. They must convey the romance of unlimited data. In real life, the images of people using a smartphone can be fairly bleak: They are usually idle, bleary, with a craned neck, waiting for an elevator. When advertisers create idealized versions of smartphone users, they have to portray not only what the phone can do but what it does to improve life after you've put it aside. And the story must depict a person whose reaction to an overabundance of digital stimuli and tools renders them not burdened or bored but joyfully free.

Things get even trickier when the device being sold doesn’t offer an escape from your status quo but rather confronts you with more information about it. This is the case with Nike's #MakeItCount campaign, which promotes the Nike+ FuelBand. The campaign consists of TV and print ads, online videos, live interactive promotions, billboards, social-media activations — it is everywhere, but especially in the sports world.

The Nike+ FuelBand, retailing at $150, is a sleek black wristband that measures one's movement according to four metrics: active time, calories, steps, and something called NikeFuel, which is a combination of those numbers and one's estimated oxygen intake. The more NikeFuel one earns throughout the day, the more red and green lights illuminate on the band. When synched with the social and mobile Nike+ applications, the device allows your friends to track your progress and correspond.

The FuelBand turns a person's every gesture and jaywalk into something to be measured and improved upon. Walking to the bodega for some processed cheese? With the FuelBand on, that journey becomes part of the data cloud. This is Nike's attempt to apply performance-driven self-measurement not just to sports, but to everyday life. But just because something like everyday motion can be quantified, that doesn't mean it should. For advertisers — and, specifically, Facebook and Google — understanding every nuance of our daily movements has already proven a lucrative business. But data collection takes away from one of the biggest reasons people exercise: to free themselves from the statistics and mundanity of everyday life.

We are used to Nike and its rivals celebrating athletic heroes and inspiring customers with glossy imagery of superior sports performance. The #MakeItCount campaign and the FuelBand promise something more ambitious. They aim to transfer that ethic of athletic competition to lives spent in traffic, at a desktop, or waiting for a table at Chili's. It presents a new philosophy of experience, with constant physical motion as the ultimate goal.

In America (1986), Jean Baudrillard writes of the “sense of futility that comes from doing anything merely to prove to yourself that you can do it: having a child, climbing a mountain, making some sexual conquest.” Today, we are goaded to set goals for the sake of setting goals. Running long distances, as the FuelBand incites us to do, is part of a similar mode of behavior. For Baudrillard, marathon running is a way to show that “you are capable of getting every last drop of energy out of yourself, to prove it ... to prove what? That you are capable of finishing.” In the case of the FuelBand, the race never finishes. It only feeds into the ongoing goal of self-realization, allowing wearers to prove to themselves that they exist simply because they are being measured.

The FuelBand is not for Nike customers content on being sedentary sports fans, living vicariously through Carmelo Anthony. It is for someone who agrees that "Life is a sport” — someone who brings the hardened resolve of a champion to every tab within every Excel spreadsheet.

There is nothing wrong with conscious efforts toward physical fitness and self-improvement. But to bring the associations and expectations of professional sports into the daily lives of ordinary people is a recipe for unearthing awkward differences. Casey Neistat is a fine example. His widely seen video for the campaign, “#MakeItCount,” has been celebrated, derided, even parodied, earning him and Nike over 6 million views on YouTube. The video depicts him spending the money Nike gave him to make an ad on a 10-day around-the-world adventure. This journey is his way of "making it count" in a way supposedly not pre-approved by the company. The piece is a video about making a video, in which Neistat describes the logistics of his trip. But its self-referentiality reminds one not of classic mockumentaries nor meta-movies like 8 1/2. It's more like the work of a high school student who writes an essay about writing an essay. However good the expression may be (it's not), it bears the marks of a procrastinator with nothing to lose.

Neistat is shown running through Paris and a dozen other cities; he explores ruins, beaches, and unusual airplane cuisine. Motivational quotations from Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other visionaries are splayed across cuts of Neistat traversing jungle bridges, getting a tattoo ("Do More"), and being mystified by Arabic highway signs. To be sure, Neistat’s sunglasses, wavy mane, and "I don't give a fuck, let's just do this" attitude present a version of the young white male extreme athlete type we've come to recognize. But he is not a competitor in any conventional sense. He's not really an athlete, either. He took advantage of a relationship he had with a major sports brand (this is his third video for Nike) and submitted an editorial on what he sees as "authentic” experience. And whether or not the supposed rebellion of this project was genuine or edited in during postproduction, what's important is how it puts a premium not on what we do in life but how fast we do it.

The marketed narrative of many sports heroes is built on personality and sweat overcoming class difference. Emerging from less-than-privileged neighborhoods, the athlete harnesses his or her talent, endurance, and will to compete on the highest stage. Victories are explicit: the ball goes in the basket, again and again. And the strategies and personality that enable athletic victories can be applied to the customer's life. Here and here, in famous advertisements from the past decade, Nike makes the connection that whatever it is that makes a professional athlete great is something everyone can access.

Neistat’s #MakeItCount story is different. His video presents a haphazard tour of developing nations, where he dove into lagoons and skateboarded with children. Along the way, the FuelBand tells him he is earning points, according to its meters. The video implies that such metrics are best explored through avoiding stasis, work, and responsibility like Neistat. In China, where the FuelBand is manufactured, those three things carry quite a different meaning.

Neistat's video is not about hard work and athleticism giving rise to success but rather about a young man who cashed his check before doing the work. “#MakeItCount” is a great example of taking an innovation meant to promote productivity and using it to express a post-American, adolescent desire to free oneself from the economy and run wild. What's remarkable in this case is that his connection to data (both personal and corporate) and desire to achieve a high score are what goad his escapism. But when you use the metrics of competition to escape competition itself, what does it mean to win? The escapism that Neistat conveys in his video is trumped by how the FuelBand influences him. As he runs further away from domestic mundanity, he becomes more entwined in himself and the metrics that tell him he’s scoring points.

More than the social currency of FourSquare, which awards users based on the diversity and frequency of visiting places, the Nike+ FuelBand introduces motion currency. The more you move, the more you earn. In this world, "mayors" are anointed because they scurry around with the frantic urgency of a starving velociraptor. Destinations don't matter as much as the journey. The journey matters far less than the speed at which you travel. And the speed is phenomenal. After all, no one runs faster than the millennial who realizes his window of globe-trotting privilege may be closing.