Retro Commercials: Nike Air Max ‘Revolution’

I don’t know about you, but commercials can often take me back to my formative years as quickly as any song or movie can. That is why we will continue this semi-regular feature on ’80s commercials that I consider particularly memorable, noteworthy, or forgotten. Television commercials were much more influential back when we were forced to watch them without the luxury to fast-forward through and/or stream shows with limited or no interruptions. This issue will cover the Nike commercial for the new Air Max shoe from 1987 featuring a song from the Beatles.

In March of 1987, Nike introduced their new “Air Max” shoe to the world with a television commercial utilizing the 1968 Beatles’ song “Revolution”. The advertising campaign was using the tagline “Revolution in Motion”, but utilizing the Beatles song was revolutionary in itself since a Beatles song sung by the Beatles themselves had never been used in a TV commercial before this.

With the growing success of the “Air Jordan” shoe and their partnership with Michael Jordan, Nike was soaring as a brand passing $1 billion in sales in 1987. The “Air Max” introduction certainly kept them going on that trajectory. This new revolutionary shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield was the first to feature the patented air cushion in the heel which is visible on the side of the sole. The ad campaign was the brain child of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy who was also responsible for the iconic “Just Do It” tagline, the “Bo Knows” campaign featuring Bo Jackson, the Air Jordan campaign featuring Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” and the “I am not a role model” campaign featuring Charles Barkley among many others. “Revolution” by the Beatles was the perfect choice for the campaign though it came with the little stumbling block of securing the licensing rights to use it.

Nike spent $500,000 to get the rights to “Revolution”, though this deal was not made with the Beatles, but with Michael Jackson and EMI-Capitol Records who actually owned the rights to many of the Beatles songs. Even though the Beatles had not wanted their music being used for advertising, it was not up to them. Nike had legally acquired the rights to use “Revolution” and it made quite an impression when the commercials began running in March of 1987.

“You say you want a revolution?” Here is that original commercial spot for Nike Air Max featuring “Revolution” by The Beatles…

For me personally, I was a young teenager who (thanks to my parents) did already know and like music by The Beatles, but I was not as familiar with this particular song. I am sure the Nike commercials helped introduce The Beatles to many who had not really heard them much before (as had “Twist and Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the year before). “Revolution” certainly caught my attention and even surprisingly became popular for a whole new generation. In fact, the Beatles’ White Album, which contained a version of the song “Revolution”, was released on CD for the first time during the summer of 1987 and it actually charted again (peaking as high as #18) nearly 20 years after its original release. Yoko Ono (the wife of the song’s writer the late John Lennon) expressed approval when the commercial was released, saying it “is making John’s music accessible to a new generation.” The three other surviving members of The Beatles did not see it that way and they filed a lawsuit that summer objecting to the use of “Revolution” in the Nike commercials.

The Beatles charged that Nike “wrongfully traded on the goodwill and popularity of the Beatles” by using the song. Capitol-EMI countered by saying the lawsuit was groundless. In addition to this legal action, there also seemed to be a backlash against Nike by Beatles fans with many saying that John Lennon would have objected to the use of his song to sell shoes. While litigation dragged on, Nike continued to air the commercials until March of 1988 when, though the case was still in court, they decided to discontinue airing the ads using the song. Then, over a year later, in November of 1989, the lawsuits involving The Beatles and EMI were settled out of court with the agreement that the terms be kept secret.

There you go, another trip down memory lane in the form of TV commercials. The song by a band who was so revolutionary decades earlier helped sell shoes featuring a revolutionary design in commercials that would be considered revolutionary in their own right. Music can be a very powerful tool. In this case, it helped draw attention and created an emotional link to a brand and product resulting in consumer demand. This took commercial music licensing to a whole new level which continues to be abused to this day. The “Revolution” commercials helped to make The Beatles relevant again to many and for the first time to many more. At the same time, they helped Nike achieve the high profile status that it reached during the mid-to-late-80s. And yes, it is worthwhile to remember that this iconic commercial for an iconic brand featuring a song by an iconic band all happened during my favorite decade. Yep, it is another little bit of pop culture history that happened during the ’80s.

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Old School Tim has an adoring devotion to the awesome '80s decade. He loves to relive and share that nostalgia on a regular basis. The Kickin' it Old School blog site has been retired, but you can still get daily doses of '80s goodness on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anywhere else they let him.