Steve Howell of Dark Horses: my Desert Island winning women sport Ads


Steve Howell is creative partner at sports specialist Dark Horses.

Desert Island Ads

I’m a pretty decent swimmer. So, if I was stuck on a desert island, I’d be spending most of my time watching the tides and trying to figure when would be the best time to launch an ambitious escape. But when I wasn’t wasting my time naively planning certain death, I guess I might want to watch some of my favourite ads of all time. And as though there’s a Women’s World Cup coming to an end this weekend, why not make those ads female-led sports ads?

Well, that’s easier said than done. There are, somewhat unsurprisingly, very few good ones out there. Advertising and female sports stars have had a slightly contemptuous relationship over the years, particularly in Britain. We’ve had a plethora of female sports stars, but none of them made it into the creative echelons of TV advertising. I mean, name a good ad with Jessica Ennis-Hill in it? You’re more likely to beat her at the heptathlon. And that kills me more than the currents of the Caribbean (this island is in the tropics) because she helped give us Super Saturday. She, and we, deserve much better.

Research we put out this week looking at what would make people engage with women’s sports shows that 68 per cent of people want to know more about the game’s stars — their backstories and narratives — and that they want advertisers to tell these stories. Which is a good place to start if we want to make better work.

But anyway, before I become shark food, here’s what I’d be watching on my island, presumably on loop…

Under Armour – ‘I Will What I Want’

This is brave, bold, beautiful work. It couldn’t have been easy being an American football meathead brand to then choose an unknown female athlete who competes in a sport not many of the target audience would even watch, never mind try themselves. But that’s exactly what Under Armour did with the ballerina soloist Misty Copeland.

It gracefully showcases her incredible athleticism coupled with young female voices reading genuine rejection letters Misty received when she was young. What a brilliant way to tell a story and make an empowering point.

Sport England – ‘This Girl Can’

Another landmark, redefining piece of work. It features everyday women doing everyday sports and in a way that makes you admire everything about them. The craft and insight that went into this film is exceptional. The edit is a lesson in itself and the wondrous journey it takes you on is touched with authentic emotion throughout, leaving you beaming with joy and feeling like I can too, even if you don’t identify as a girl.

Chase – ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’

There’s actually quite a lot of decent ads featuring Serena Williams. She seems to be the anomaly in female-led sports ads. But one that stands out for me is this one for Chase Bank. Williams’ dictation of LL Cool J’s banger is hypnotic like a whispered nursery rhyme, while the poignancy of her emotional return to tennis after giving birth manifests itself in the foreboding monsoon. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking that captures the superhero nature of Williams and reminds us men that we are indeed the weaker of the sexes.

Lucozade – ‘Three Lionesses’

Back to the football. There’s a World Cup on, after all..

This a deftly rewritten version of the anthem ‘Three Lions’ that makes you wish you’d watched the English Lionesses in all the World Cup qualifiers. Because I bet you didn’t. I know I didn’t. But I have been part of the record-breaking hordes of football fans watching the team progress to the semi-finals of the tournament. And every time I’ve seen this Lucozade spot it’s managed to stir my English pride into a somewhat loutish utterance of “It’s coommming home, it’s coming..”

Nike – ‘Dream Further’

Finally, probably the pick of this year’s World Cup ads. The female stars are given the same reverence as Nike’s male counterparts, and while most female-led sports ads lean towards empowering statements of triumph over adversity, this changes the way female athletes are portrayed by portraying them simply as megastar athletes. Which in itself, is empowering and triumphant.

I can’t help thinking there’s something prophetic in the way the young mascot asks Martens at the end, “Hey, you ready?” because with the success of this year’s World Cup, we could be entering a new dawn of female-led sports ads.

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