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

William Burroughs, Thomas Frank, and some shoes


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 Press

Not 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.")