Reader’s Roundtable: That New Balance Ad and Running Bad Words

imageOn Thursday, runners on social media were all atwitter about the new New Balance ad to the left, which New Balance has since abandoned. Many people were offended by it because they thought it excluded them or was divisive.

What exactly about this ad is offensive to the offended? The words appearing with the photo? Would it be ok if the runner in the photo was “squishy?” Is it the notion of “endeavor[ing] to beat other people”? What if that line was left out and it just said stuff about competition?

Contemplating this got me thinking about the “dirty” words of running. Words like:

competition ● athlete ● fast

Sometimes it feels like anyone who utters these words is an elitist, an excluder, an asshole. Can’t anyone compete? Can’t anyone be an athlete? Can’t anyone be fast? Why is it not ok to try to finish ahead of others and “beat” them in a race?

When the only major print publication dedicated to runners is all about beginners and losing weight, when it seems that pursuing personal excellence through competition, athleticism, or running fast makes you an elitist asshole, is there no place for brands to cater to competitive runners or to push runners to be more competitive? Or does this ad not even do that? Is this ad bitchy, divisive, or rude? If so, how can a brand push us towards excellence or cater to the competitive among us without being those things?

Tell us what you think! Was this New Balance ad out of line, misunderstood, or unduly attacked? 

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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35 comments

  1. Maybe “the rest of us” should be content to just call ourselves runners. So many people I know who run and race occasionally don’t consider themselves runners.
    I’ve worked my way to finishing in the top 1/4 of many races and in my age bracket. Sometimes I win my bracket, so I guess that makes me a competitor which makes me an athlete.
    Do you really need to compete to win to be an athlete?
    How about all of those athletes who go to the Olympics and loose in the preliminary races. Are they not Olympians?
    By the same token, all of us who run are athletes. We don’t have to win and we don’t even need to compete with the top finishers.
    If you train and you run you are an athlete.
    While it is great to celebrate the great runners there is so much more going on.
    Average Americans are lacing up and getting exercise. Improving their health is the victory. They don’t need medals. That fading ass print in the couch is reward enough.

    1. The ad says nothing about winning, just that you go out and compete. I’d say it could be a little more graceful about the “beat people” part, but even that … if you go out to do your best and finish as high up in the rankings as YOU can, isn’t that enough even for this ad? And yeah for people moving! That’s great, but why is celebrating or encouraging or catering to people who hold themselves to a higher standard than participating so terrible?

      I’m not saying I disagree with you per se, just curious 🙂

      1. Correct, the ad does not say anything about winning- it talks about competing. By most common definitions of “athlete” it involves the words (in some way) that an athlete is someone who competes against others. For me, if you’re just out running for health- it’s not really a competition with anyone but yourself. I’m not knocking that whatsoever- I want everyone to be active and healthy. But those people who go out and compete (even if not to win, BUT to compete with others in general) are athletes by definition.

  2. I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with this ad. If New Balance is trying to cater to high caliber, elite athletes who work their tails off and dedicate themselves to the sport beyond just getting out there and moving, I think they did a good job. Of course, the ad has a risk of pissing off people who are not necessarily die hard runners but feel pretty good about their daily efforts of getting out there, moving and competing to the best of their ability…regardless of how their ‘bodies’ may look. I’m not sure I really understand where they were going with the whole body reference.

  3. I think if they would have made the “body” reference say “human” instead, it would have not been as controversial. The phrase “having a body” tends to imply you have little to no body fat and are model skinny. I know that is not what they mean, but as an athlete who is not model skinny and used to face disordered eating habits I can say that the body reference triggered me. I had to read it several times to fully understand what New Balance was getting at. An ad only works if just about anyone can understand it on the first try without any extra thought. So for that alone I think it is a terrible ad.

    1. That’s really interesting. I didn’t even think of that – I thought of it in terms of being human or just flesh and bones. I didn’t think of it as “hot body.” That changes the context!

    2. Thanks for mentioning that, Erin. I think unconsciously this is why I didn’t like the ‘body’ reference. As a runner who has had years of ED and body image struggles, I just didn’t like the wording. Like you said, it’s triggering.

  4. I coach beginner runners for their first races ever. For some this is the first time that they are stepping out into the fitness world, many of them are overweight, some walk, some walk-run, and others run. I refer to all of them as athletes because it projects that I believe in their abilities already and what I have seen helps them want to earn that title in their own mind. I totally understand this ad because there are athletes who are out there kicking ass, living, breathing, and bleeding running who absolutely deserve credit for all they are doing and it should not be diminished. I guess my opinion is there are varying degrees to the title athlete and we should accept and celebrate them all.

    1. To your point, Gina, I think the intention of the ad was not to say that beginners aren’t athletes; it was to say that people who push themselves hard are athletes. In my interpretation, your coaching clients fit the ad’s definition. If one stops altogether or starts couch potato-ing six days a week, running a couple miles just to keep saying she runs, then, well, she doesn’t fit the definition anymore. I don’t think it was trying to be exclusive with people like your clients (or you or me), I think it was trying to motivate us to work hard.

  5. One of the things I’ve always loved about the running community is that there is always room for everyone. I know it wasn’t always this way… But now everyone is welcome no matter their ability and I think that’s wonderful. However, I feel like there is a shift happening where it’s no longer ok to be competitive. If you’re competitive than you’re a snob or an elitist. Just as it should be ok to strive to run at a higher caliber, why isn’t it ok for some to cater to someone competing at a higher Caliber? Why should I be offended? Every marketing segment caters to different types of consumers within that market segment. Don’t get me wrong, this ad fired me up a little. I’m not elite, so am I an athlete? Perhaps I should try to compete more? This ad inspires me. Other things besides inspirational sayings on a pretty background can be motivation too!

  6. I’ll probably get my ass kicked for saying this and I can only speak about running ; I’ve noticed that so many people go out just to run big races like half and full marathons with some romantic idea of just finishing. They aren’t out there racing. So they take 3 hours to run a half and 5-6 hours to run a full, go tell their friends and family they ran a half or full and think they are athletic.
    I don’t call myself a soccer player b/c I go outside and kick a soccer ball around with my kids or a football player b/c I throw around the football with my husband. Yet everyone that wants to stop being a couch potato and buy a pair of running shoes can be called a runner and all of a sudden they are athletic.
    It really takes away from the sport of running and away from the bigger races and what they are all about. They are about racing fast, getting to the finish line and hurting, and mostly competition.

    1. So true 4kids!
      I’ve been running and competing for decades, including college teams, and I’m not an athlete. I think of the term “athlete” as a profession.
      Article is not offensive at all!

      1. I get what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t go that far and say only pros are athletes. But on the other hand if everyone who exercises even the slightest bit is an athlete, than the word is meaningless. To me, I think an athlete is someone who trains to perform in athletics and that doesn’t mean she needs to look like an athlete (or what convention dictates an athlete should look like), be objectively fast, win or anything like that. An athlete merely need train to perform better and not simply get in the exercise minutes, try to look hot, lose a few pounds or simply participate. And that doesn’t mean there are anything wrong with those things. But running for the purpose of doing those things without caring about running performance is not an athlete. And really that’s ok! I’m not sure why saying *that* is alienating or offensive. This ad could be interpreted to say more than that either with the words in conjunction with the picture, the whole “beat people” thing, etc., so maybe those are the offensive parts of the ad? Not saying it’s not justified, but I still haven’t seen a good explanation for the outrage.

    2. I agree with you. When I trained my, err, butt off months and then had a crappy NYC (which I qualified for), a lot of people (non-runners) were like “Oh- but you finished!” I had to sort of explain that I know I can finish a marathon; that’s not the point for me…

  7. This ad, though worded divisively, is in opposition to the every kid gets a trophy at the end of a sport season: “Yay, everyone is a participant so everyone is a winner!!” Also reminiscent of when the high school I taught at stopped posting the honor roll because the principal didn’t want to offend or hurt the feelings of the kids that weren’t on it. Ahem. The dirty words Salty mentioned absolutely trigger some people– look at the comments of all those running sites on Facebook when they ask “What makes you a REAL runner?” (people who actually say something about a particular speed or qualifying for a particular race are incinerated by those who feel left out) or those memes about if you’re off the couch you’re lapping the people still on it… We should definitely celebrate the people who are beginners, who got off the couch and got to the point of finishing a race, BUT it is not taking away from those people’s accomplishments by celebrating the whole “chain” (to use Cinnamon’s apt metaphor) of runners. For those of us working our way up that chain, seeing the eiltes hone their skill to an edge that we strive for should be empowering. And you should be able to talk about competing, athleticism, and being fast without being labeled an asshole. There is a difference.

    1. Yes, I totally agree! You SHOULD be able to talk about it without someone thinking you are looking down on others, or feel you are better than them. 100%

  8. I think for me…(I could be called an ass for this…but whatever), an athlete is someone who goes out and competes against someone other than themselves. That doesn’t mean that someone isn’t fit, or doesn’t have goals but there is something different about competing with yourself than others. Athletes compete with both (in my opinion). It doesn’t mean an athlete is better than someone else, but it does change the lifestyle, training, and general mindset. (Different doesn’t mean better or worse…). I get where New balance is going with it, and honestly it’s kind of refreshing to see a company that is willing to take a chance and try and appeal to a smaller crowd than the masses. Not everyone wants to “just finish”

    I guess, I get where New Balance was going with it and I see their point- but I also get where some people would be offended by it.

    1. I agree! People will get offended by anything and if the company wants to target a certain kind of runner , then that’s cool! I’m not going to cry because of it. I don’t fine the commercial offensive at all. I’ve had 4 kids, my stomach isn’t rock hard but if I’m hot while running I take off my shirt , I don’t care. Maybe that should be more offensive than this add.

  9. First, I agree with what I’ve seen as a common thread here that new runners should not be discouraged and that this ad might make them feel left out. I totally get how it could be seen as controversial or not PC, and I realize that the point of the roundtable is to express our feeeeeelings about the ad;

    BUT…

    The origin of the word “athlete” is the Greek work athlon, which literally means “prize.” Later the word evolved to athlein, the translation of which is “compete for a prize.” If we’re going to be purists about it, then NB was completely in the right and all they were doing was giving us the definition of the word.

    I think people are confusing the word “athlete” with “athletic,” which means to be physically strong, fit or active. Someone can be ATHLETIC without being an ATHLETE.

  10. Honestly? I think people are splitting hairs. I can definitely see both points, but what it really comes down to is people can find something to be offended by in everything. You think you are an athlete because you are fast and can compete? Go for it. You think you’re an athlete because you ran a 3:00 HM where you didn’t think you could have done it years ago? And you didn’t come in last? Knock yourself out. In essence the 3:00 person is entering in a competition and I bet (hope) endeavors to beat others. No?

    I don’t think anyone should be offended by either side. Just do what you do. It’s an ad. Move on.

    1. I agree! Like you said, people get offended by anything. I don’t wear New Balance anything, but even if it were the brands I wear, I still wouldn’t care. I like a company’s products because they work well or last or whatever. Not because of the ads they run. Everyone’s going to be offended by something. New Balance took a risk and wrote an ad that appealed to a sample of their demographic. People shouldn’t be so sensitive about it.

  11. I don’t have much to say other than that the Facebook page for New Balance is highly entertaining after this ad came out. People are now commenting on random pictures that have nothing to do with it. Some of my favorites:

    Picture of a woman on a park bench wearing plan old tennies:

    Verity Breen: Trust lost… for some time. Sorry to report. It’s going to take sheer genius to dig out of this hole.

    Amy Bailey: Hmmmm. I’m not sure she’s enough of an ATHLETE to wear those.

    Erin Kelly: Do those go with winning? Because apparently that’s all that matters.

    My personal favorite thread can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/Newbalance/photos/a.84612738245.86860.14299383245/10153461488593246/?type=3&theater

    User Bill Ivory provides some classic entertainment!

  12. Told New Balance to suck a lemon because of that ad. To me that ad (whole ad) was bullying to me, especially when I just competed in my 2nd Ultra with an encouraging, positive atmosphere, where I volunteered after my race to support my fellow runners 50k, 50mi, 100mi, 100k, double barrel.

  13. The quote “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” is a Bill Bowerman quote. Bill Bowerman, as in, coach and co-founder of Nike. That section is definitely a dig at NB’s competitor, Nike. But easy to understand how it gets people talking and is perfect for an ad to get people talking about your brand.

    1. Yes, that adds a whole other level to the discussion. I think that passive aggressive dig against Nike is probably why it sounds off and hostile!

  14. I am not offended by it and I don’t think the idea of being competitive is negative. However, being competitive is different for everyone. My level of competition is significantly different than Jasmine’s, for example. This ad could have been gotten its point across differently with a little more editing. The line, “Sometimes they change their clothes and increase their activity levels.” sounds so judgemental. It sounds like these people shouldn’t even try. I think they should have focused on the what makes a person an athlete, not what doesn’t make a person an athlete.

  15. I have never said I was an athlete, unless it was joking or ironic. (I ate a piece of pizza during an ultra once and laughed, “look, I’m such an athlete”) I am a runner. I run because I enjoy it. My only competitor is myself. I see what they are saying, but I don’t think us ‘middle of the pack’ people are saying we’re full-blown athletes the way they’re saying we are. We just want to run, push ourselves, and achieve things we had no idea we could do.

  16. I’m from Australia and the idea of anyone other than an elite athlete referring to themselves as an athlete just doesn’t work in our culture. It would be viewed as someone big noting them self. ‘Tall poppy syndrome’ is alive and well down under! From what I can tell there is a big difference in culture in the US though as everyone seems to be considered an athlete if they are participating in anything. I think it devalues the word. The ad doesn’t really do much for me. I don’t see it as controversial, it just doesn’t present as compelling to me.

  17. I don’t really see anything wrong with this ad. I really wish that New Balance had stuck to their guns and kept it up. I suppose I can try to see it from the other side – the “non-athlete” side. Is competition the sole determining factor in what makes someone an “athlete?” Probably not. Conversely, slapping on a pair of running shoes and your new pair of Lulu leggings to go pound it out in the gym for 30 minutes 4 times a week absolutely does not make a person an athlete. (Oh crap, I just offended the Lulu-wearing crowd, didn’t I?) New Balance is a brand, and they are trying to sell their product, and clearly they have a target market in mind. If you’re offended, don’t buy their stuff…or maybe, I dunno, train a little harder, track your progress, strive to win. Meh…as the kids say, “You do you.”