Story Behind Nike's Controversial 1987 'Revolution' Commercial

Sneakers, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, lawsuits and a revolution in advertising took place 30 years ago

Michael Jordan flying above the rim and then shoving his hand in front of the camera, a horde of swimmers running into water for a triathlon, a game of pick-up basketball, cyclists, weight-lifters and John McEnroe complaining on the court. Nike's black-and-white 1987 Air Revolution TV ad is full of iconic sports imagery, yet it had one huge difference from all its predecessors: the Beatles' 1968 song "Revolution" blasted as the soundtrack.

Before Nike's commercial, any classic pop tune that appeared in an ad video was a cover, a facsimile, like Sunkist's re-working of "Good Vibrations' by the Beach Boys. Sure, Lou Reed appeared in a 1984 ad for Honda's Elite scooters, "Walk on the Wide Side" creeping in the background. Although the spot ends with Reed sitting on a scooter, taking off his shades, and saying, "Hey, don't settle for walkin,'" none of Reed's actual vocals from the track are included.

Nike used the real thing: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Soon after the ad hit the airwaves in mid-March, the band's record label, Apple Records, sued for $15 million, their lawyer claiming that the band hadn't given their "authorization or permission." George Harrison said the spot opened the door for the band's songs to be used to advertise everything from "women's underwear" to "sausages." Yet Yoko Ono – who held shares in the Beatles' record company – had helped broker the original deal. She thought the spot might introduce a new generation to her late husband's music. Nike stopped running the ads early in 1988, and the case settled out-of-court the next year on terms that have been kept secret since. 

But the ad didn't recede into video history. If you watch any spot now, you can feel the influence of the Air Revolution video. A shot of power-walkers is followed by a young, high-socked baller on an open court. Weekend warriors busting their guts in the gym, runners collapsing after races, even an infant shuffling around. Legends share the space with amateurs, giving the sense that we all share the same emotions. The ad perfectly captures the range of feelings within sports: moving, struggling, striving and sometimes failing.

The video's directors, Paula Greif and Peter Kagan, originally met through legendary photographer Arthur Elgort; Kagan was his assistant. Kagan says Greif "was smart and funny and had fantastic taste and ... she liked my film." He needed validation because he "was doing weird stuff. This was the era when doctors and lawyers were pulling old Super 8 cameras out of their closets and trading them for VHS video cameras. The discount bins at the camera stores had piles of fantastic S8 film cameras for very little money." 

One person's junk is another person's art project. Kagan says that he "figured out that if I projected the grainy film onto my apartment wall, and videotaped the projection I could then edit the Super 8 film in a way that would have been impossible using splices and tape. Black and white reversal film, contrasty and unforgiving. It looked fantastic against music. It was a natural pairing for garage bands and pretty girls."

Greif showed the work to Jeff Ayeroff at Warner Records. Greif and Kagan then shot music videos for Steve Winwood, Cutting Crew, Scritti Politti and Duran Duran. Videos that established the iconic feel of early MTV. They also did a spot for the opening of Barney's women’s store, where Greif was an art director. She'd seen the Reed ad for Honda and thought, "Wow, whoever did that is really on to something" – "whoever" happened to be Portland-based ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, who worked with Nike.

Greif sent them the Barneys spot, and they loved it: "They wanted us to shoot a Super 8 sports commercial." They got to work on the Air Revolution ad. Kagan imagined the "idea was to create a feeling and not tell a story." His "$50 Nikon Super-8 camera made a shit-ton of noise, particularly when I over-cranked – that's when you shoot more film faster, to get a slow-motion result." McEnroe was not pleased. They filmed him during an exhibition match, but the tennis star "definitely wanted to win." Whenever McEnroe wound up for a serve Kagan's "little camera would just wail." He says the tennis star "had no sense of humor about my camera. But, I needed the shots and kept going until someone told me to stop. He fucking hated me."

Laura Israel, who had edited their music videos, also worked on the Nike spot. Kagan says that Israel "was conflicted about even dubbing the "Revolution" track onto a 3/4" videotape to use as scratch for our "director's cut.' We had been told that the agency was going to re-record 'Revolution' with the Georgia Satellites, and what we were doing would serve as a temp track for our rough cut."

They were all in for a surprise, according to Kagan: "A few weeks later Paula and I were in L.A. shooting a Duran Duran video on a soundstage that happened to be on the same backlot as – the editor that Wieden+Kennedy were using for their 'final' edit. What final edit? This was a first for us. No one had ever taken an edit away from us. We had always finished our stuff all the way to air. We went in and saw what they had done. I hated it. There were jump cuts that looked like what your dad would do to look cool. I felt like they doing a lame imitation of Laura Israel. I might have had a bit of a tantrum ... They had taken the groovy little technique from my living room wall, and had some editor in L.A. mix it with stock footage."

And those Los Angeles editors had used the real Beatles track. "It was an odd feeling," Kagan says. Greif "knew it would be controversial." At the time she was married to Dan Zanes, lead singer of the Del Fuegos – who had appeared in a Miller beer that ran before Live Aid in 1985. "It was a career catastrophe" for the band, Greif recalls. But, as Kagan pointed out, the marriage of "rock and advertising for all eternity" was inevitable. Soon after, the Nike ad ran with the Beatles song, and the rest is advertising history.

The directors are still fond of the spot, even if Kagan is a bit miffed about the backroom moves. "the first of many indignities suffered in pursuit of big advertising bucks," she says. One executive told Kagan the new advertising scheme was simple: "make it just like your music video, but park my car in it." He continues to make commercials, creating spots for Dannon, JC Penney, Chevrolet, Reebok and others over the years. Greif directed music videos for Billy Joel and Iggy Pop and designed album covers for Madonna and Paul Simon. She now creates and sells unique ceramics at a small shop in Hudson, New York.

If Nike's Air Jordan spots changed the hoops ad game, its Air Revolution spot changed the entire music-ad industry. We now expect ads, athletes, and music to share the same space. It wasn’t always that way. But, like Kagan says, "it was bound to happen. We were just waiting with cameras."