Friday A/V Club: Who Better Than a Frail Old Junkie to Sell Athletic Footwear?

This week I finished reading Call Me Burroughs, Barry Miles' new biography of my favorite of the first-generation Beat writers, the dry old satirist William Burroughs. I'll have more to say about Miles' book, and about Burroughs in general, in an upcoming Reason article. (Quick preview: Burroughs' worldview is more good than bad; it's harder to say that about his life.) For now, I'll just post the most unexpected entry in Burroughs' c.v. since his '60s flirtation with Scientology:

Yes, that's a Nike commercial. I remember it catching me by surprise as I watched TV one night in 1994. Twenty years later, I have no idea what program it interrupted, but I'm sure the show wasn't as memorable as the sight of William S. Burroughs hawking shoes.

You can't fool me. That's not a Nike swoosh.Blue Wind PressNot long afterward, Thomas Frank mocked the spot in The Baffler. Frank's big theme in those days was that rebellion had become commodified; if Nike had deliberately set out to bait him, it couldn't have done better than to produce a sneaker ad starring a counterculture icon. We shouldn't be surprised to see Burroughs in an advertisement, Frank wrote, because "His ravings are no longer appreciably different from the official folklore of American capitalism. What's changed is not Burroughs, but business itself. As expertly as Burroughs once bayoneted American proprieties, as stridently as he once proclaimed himself beyond the laws of man and God, he is today a respected ideologue of the Information Age, occupying roughly the position in the pantheon of corporate-cultural thought once reserved strictly for Notre Dame football coaches and positive-thinking Methodist ministers. His inspirational writings are boardroom favorites, his dark nihilistic burpings the happy homilies of the new corporate faith." Now that you've read that once, go back and imagine you're hearing it in Burroughs' voice.

In case you're curious about what led Nike to think an 80-year-old junkie was the right man to pitch athletic footwear, here's the relevant passage from the Miles book:

Nike PR manager Judy Smith explained, "He was chosen because we knew he could pull off this role as a quirky, scientific, prophetic technology wiz. Burroughs isn't identified in the commercial because the role he's playing has nothing to do with his history as a writer or his reputation in the counterculture." Nike didn't expect their fourteen-year-old audience to know who he was, but there were extra kudos for those who did.

Burroughs' fee helped pay his medical bills, which is as good a reason as any to appear in a commercial. When Thomas Frank is 80, he might find himself in a similar situation. I picture him as a pitchman for heartland tourism: "Looking for a place to spend spring break? Well, what's the matter with Kansas?"

(Bonus link: From 1949, here's Burroughs warning Allen Ginsberg that "the U.S. is heading in the direction of a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia.")

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  • Ted S.||

    People give a shit what Thomas Frank has to say about anything?

  • ||

    Paging Doctor Benway!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Thomas was a precocious child, and he never got over it.

  • Mike G||

    So in the late 80s I was running a film society in Wichita (don't laugh!) and someone had a connection to Burroughs, living in Lawrence KS by then. So we arranged to bring him to give a reading and do a book signing (Watermark Books, yea!) before the documentary Burroughs. At the end of it all here's how the fearless anarchist, dadaist writer and rebel thinker signed my copy of Naked Lunch:

    "To Mike: Thanks for a well-organized event. Bill"

    You can take the boy out of the midwest, but you can't take the midwest manners out of even Bill Burroughs.

    Anyway, so half a dozen years later I'm working at a big ad agency in Chicago and we're up against Nike's agency, Wieden + Kennedy, for the Microsoft account. And this ad comes out. And I think, imagine if I had said, Hey, I have a connection to the author of Naked Lunch, how about we get him to rant something paranoid in a spot for one of our clients? Like McDonald's, or Hallmark.

    The only question would have been if they would have stepped on my glasses while escorting me from the agency...

  • Tonio||

    Ha, ha...

    No, seriously, that's totally cool.

  • Tonio||

    Interesting trivium: WSB was heir to the Burroughs Business Machines fortune, so his appreciation for capitalism is understandable. A connection which I suspect Thomas Frank never made.

  • Robert||

    I recognized him in that Nike ad when it came out only because I'd seen him in Drugstore Cowboy.

  • GILMORE||

    For those out there who are either WSB newbies, read some of his stuff, or have read a lot but somehow missed it = "The Job" by Daniel Odier is probably one of the best/most important "behind the scenes" books about him.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Job-.....0140118829

    Its a series of interviews mixed with a few odd pieces of his, essays, etc. I havent' read it in a few years, but I read it very early on before reading almost everything Burroughs wrote, and it was unbelievably helpful in establishing the "Who is this guy"? behind the books such that they made a lot more sense than they otherwise would have (zero).

    In fact, I have always sort of felt Burroughs to be best when he was doing his somewhat off-kilter 'non-fiction' writing, talking about normal real-world issues... interspersed with junkie daydreams and alien parasites etc. its what made his 'cut-up' books work.

    Anyway, for Burroughs fans - don't pass "the Job" up. Also, if you can find them, the Tornado Alley writings are cool. "The Letters Of William S Burroughs" (between him and Ginsberg) are interesting on a personal level (particularly on his view of how 'gay' he was/wasnt and what it meant to him) and on a historic/biographical level, in how they offer detail about both the Kerouac/Cassidy situation as well as the details surrounding his flight to mexico, shooting his wife in the face, skipping trial, fleeing to SA then Tangiers...etc.

    Anyway, all good stuff.

  • Dan Clore||

    In an interview somewhere WSB openly explained that he did the Nike commercial because he figured that it was a good chance to rip them off.

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