Family Matters

Does Nike’s ‘Greatness’ Ad Exploit Fat People?

Opinions are mixed on whether a Nike commercial featuring 12-year-old Nathan Sorrell, who weighs 200 lbs., combats or promotes stigma surrounding obesity

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Nathan Sorrell, a middle-school student from London, Ohio, is 12 years old, 5-ft.-3-in. tall and weighs 200 lbs. He’s likely one of the last people you’d think Nike would laud in an ad campaign. Yet there he is, lumbering down the middle of Old Xenia Road, his bulk silhouetted against a pastel sky.

Nathan runs and runs, clearly exhausted with the immense effort, as a narrator speaks in church-like tones of greatness, informing us that “we’re all capable of it. All of us.”

The message is pretty clear. Human will — in this case Nathan’s apparent desire to get fit — is a thing of incredible power. His determination to slim down is deserving of reverence — and a prime viewing spot during the Olympics broadcast. Nike selected Nathan to participate in its “Find Your Greatness” ad campaign that showcased towns the world over that shared the same name as the city hosting feats of athletic prowess.

I struggled to decide whether this ad exploited Nathan, or whether Nike was making an incredibly generous and open-minded overture toward people who wouldn’t typically make much use of their products. Was this an attempt to tackle the stigma surrounding childhood obesity — 1 in 3 U.S. kids is overweight — or was it a publicity stunt?

According to his local newspaper, the Record Herald, Nathan answered a casting call at his middle school for a boy “with a specific profile.”

He was instructed to jog behind a Porsche outfitted with a boom and camera. On the second take, a problem arose. The lunch Sorrell had eaten about an hour before didn’t stay down.

“I got sick in a ditch,” he admitted.

Not to worry, said Lance. He agreed to allow Sorrell enough time to recover.

“We’ll try to work with you,” Sorrell said, quoting the director. “They were lenient with me.”

(MORE: Too Much TV Linked with Thicker, Weaker Kids)

My brother, a triathlete and the person who called the ad to my attention, was impressed with the ad’s message. “Cool Nike spot,” he commented. Of the more than 960,000 people who’ve watched the clip on YouTube, many have called it “inspiring” and “amazing.” One viewer commented: “Best commercial out for a while, props to Nike.”

Nathan told the Record Herald that he and his mom plan to team up to slim down together by exercising and eating healthier. Nike may return for a follow-up if they’re successful.

Of course, it’s unclear how to measure success in a kid who weighs more than 99% of his peers. If he loses 10 lbs, is that cause for celebration? Or would it take a much more dramatic weight loss to sufficiently impress the company and bring the cameras back?

That ambiguity is part of what makes Dr. David Katz, editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, ambivalent about the ad. While he agrees that obesity is not an obstacle to achievement, he’s uneasy with the message that Nathan is chasing greatness by running.

“He looks miserably uncomfortable, and as if he’s about to topple over. There is no hint of greatness in it — other than, perhaps, his commitment to do it.  But maybe he is a great mathematician — or orator — or pianist…” he wrote in an email.

“So, I would have preferred they showed his pursuit of greatness in a way that was not so obviously far from great, so obviously impeded by his weight and so blatantly uncomfortable!”

(MORE: Good News: American Kids’ Cholesterol Levels Are Down)

But even within the childhood obesity community, opinions are mixed.

On its website, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity praised Nike for demonstrating “its commitment to demystify myths about overweight and obese people.” Rebecca Puhl, Rudd’s director of research, was surprised — pleasantly — by the ad, which she believes challenges stereotypes of obese people as lazy, crazy for junk food and lacking in willpower or self-discipline.

“By featuring an overweight boy in their ad (and doing so in a respectful manner), Nike challenges the stereotype that overweight youth are inactive, and shows that body size has nothing to do with a person’s ambition or ability to push themselves to achieve their goals,” Puhl wrote in an email. “It also shows the importance of respecting individuals who are trying to improve their health through physical activity, regardless of what their body size is.”

Perhaps YouTube fan TheLordVallon best summed up the clip’s significance with his commentary on Nike’s intentions and the concept of change in general. “I don’t care if it’s fake/shrewd advertising/[a] quick buck. I liked this commercial because it shows that all it takes is a choice to be greater.”

MORE: Obesity: Playing Three or More Sports Cuts the Rate of Overweight Teens