How do you make an ad about invisibility?
It's an absurd idea, particularly for a sports ad. Sports is about performance and the ultimate visibility of battle. Not someone receding from view.
Yet the best ad of 2016 pulled a remarkable disappearing act, taking one of the world's most famous athletes and dramatizing his solitude, his pain and his sacrifice away from the spotlight. And it did so with a haunting beauty that wrapped the hardship in romance, illuminating the athlete's love of a sport whose cruelties have also brought fame, fortune and 28 Olympic medals.
Under Armour's brief to Droga5 in late 2015 was simple: Explore the rigors of training through the lens of Michael Phelps ahead of his final Olympics in Rio. The finished spot was astonishing, using darkness to paradoxically shed new light on one of the planet's biggest stars—and the physical and psychological cost of dedicating one's life to swimming.
"This is someone everyone thought they knew, but in many ways did not," says Droga5 group creative director Tim Gordon. "When you hear him talk about life, what it was like to be in a pool since a super-young age—the hard work, the loneliness—you sympathize with this man. It became easy to root for him, to make something that reflected everything he had gone through."
The 90-second spot, perfectly set to "The Last Goodbye" by the Kills, shows Phelps pumping iron, taking ice baths, carb loading, sleeping in an altitude chamber, undergoing "cupping" therapy (which the world would learn all about in Rio, seeing the marks on Phelps' body) and racing lengths of the pool to the point of vomiting. He also tosses and turns in bed and, in an introspective moment, gazes at a leaf-strewn outdoor pool.
The backbone of the ad is a dreamlike, recurring shot of him swimming down an illuminated lane, with darkness on both sides—the camera receding in successive shots, leaving Phelps crawling along endlessly in the water.
"It's what you do in the dark that puts you in the light," says the tagline at the end, after a shot of Phelps shivering poolside at night. Then the line: "Rule yourself."
Droga5 senior creatives Laurie Howell and Toby Treyer-Evans dreamed up the backbone image, then filled out the narrative after lengthy talks with Phelps.
"The conversations we had with him made us realize the bigger picture," says Treyer-Evans. "He does spend a lot of time in the pool, but there were things we initially overlooked—like the boredom and the more psychological parts. Things like him staring at the pool, just leaves in the pool—on its own it doesn't really mean much, but in the bigger picture it tells you the psychological side, which we really wanted to capture."
Martin de Thurah, the Epoch Films director, understood the spiritual side of swimming—the attachment swimmers have to the water when they push themselves to the limit. In his original treatment to the agency, he mentioned a friend in Norway who swims under sheets of ice. He was clearly the man for the job.
The team shot for two full days in Arizona. In a random stroke of luck, Phelps arrived at the shoot with a full beard. This heightened the sense of seeing him anew and with rough edges—the forgotten hero toiling in the wilderness.
"He showed up and was like, 'Do you guys want me to shave?' And we all said, 'No, no, please don't!' " Gordon recalls with a laugh.
It was late fall in Arizona. The days were nice, but the nights were chilly. And the shot of Phelps shivering was real.
"The shiver doesn't show vulnerability in the sense that you feel sorry for him," says Howell. "But it weirdly goes to this place you wouldn't normally see. And you go, holy shit, this is a serious thing going on here, and we're bearing witness to it. … It didn't feel like an ad anymore, which is the goal, right?"
The creatives wrote a long, poetic voiceover to lay over the top of the spot. But "The Last Goodbye," lyrically and emotionally, told the story better on its own. (In the end, only the tagline was taken from the script.)
The song also enhanced the sense of repetition. It's in 3/4 time, which created a "beautiful waltz" that fit well with the fluid, languorous motion of swimming, says Treyer-Evans.
"We actually wanted to capture a feeling of suffocation, like you want to take a deep breath at the end," he says. "Putting the cyclical momentum of the song on it made you empathize with him even more. It heightens the imagery."
The media plan added to the spot's legend. It broke in March, well ahead of most Rio ads—partly to coincide with new UA training products, but also "to seed 'Rule Yourself' as part of the nomenclature," says Adrienne Lofton, UA's svp of global brand management.
"Rule Yourself" returned in force in July and August, when Phelps hit the pool, and came full circle as he won five gold medals and a silver in Rio.
"We were able to complete the story—you work your butt off when no one's looking, and the medals are the reward," says Lofton. "It felt good for us to see the strategy come to life. We always want to bet on our athletes to tell our story, and this was one of the easiest bets we ever had to make. Going in with Phelps and the U.S. gymnastics team, we knew we had gold in our hands. We just wanted to make sure we could tell that story and really maximize it."
"Nothing beats beautiful film when it's done well," adds Droga5 founder and creative chairman David Droga. "We're all searching for new platforms and new expressions, which are fascinating and participatory. But great film—it ain't going anywhere."
And yes, the ad's star was pleased with it, too. He and wife Nicole wiped away tears when CEO Kevin Plank first showed it to them at UA headquarters last Christmas—a moment captured on video, which UA later posted online (see below).
— Under Armour (@UnderArmour) March 7, 2016
Phelps tells Adweek the spot was true to life, and provided extra motivation for Rio.
"It showed exactly how I prepare," he says. "The hard work pays off if you do it, and if you do it well. As long as you're literally busting your butt every single day, you'll see the goal at the end of the road."
This story first appeared in the December 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.