How brands and photography are expanding sport

In the past, sport ads and photography were largely focused on men and competitiveness. But recent campaigns and projects have seen a more nuanced way of approaching the subject emerge, with space for women to shine too (with sweat)

On 27 May this year, director Kim Gehrig won a prestigious D&AD President’s Award for her work, which includes commercials such as Sport England’s This Girl Can (2014), Libresse’s Viva la Vulva (2018), and Nike’s Dream Crazier (2019). Encouraging women to accept their bodies and themselves, these ads aim to empower their viewers as well as work for their clients; as D&AD President Naresh Ramchandani put it, Gehrig’s creative excellence “acts both for the brief and for the world, putting social purpose at the heart of commercial success”.

Gehrig’s work isn’t just about women or sport, but sport has proved a rich area for her to push back against feminine stereotypes. This Girl Can and Dream Crazier both feature women doing sport more traditionally associated with men, such as American football, soccer, basketball, boxing, or snowboarding, and both also feature soundbites that upend social niceties. ‘Sweating like a pig/Feeling like a fox”’, states one tagline in This Girl Can, which later adds ‘Damn right I look hot’; “Winning 23 Grand Slams, having a baby, and then coming back for more – crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, and crazy,” states Serena Williams in Dream Crazier, before concluding: “Show them what crazy can do.”

Even in ads not explicitly linked to sport, women in Gehrig’s projects are physically active. Her 2020 film for Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, Make Movies Like the Movies, shows women directors running (and in one case crash landing) to get the shot, while her 2020 commercial for Apple AirPods Pro, Snap, shows a woman dancing alone in a street at night – not just reclaiming the night, as the feminist protest puts it, but altogether taking it by storm. It looks so cool when it’s done well, you wonder why it seems liberating, what the ‘social purpose’ at work might be.

Top and above: Images by Ward & Kweskin for Nike React Infinity Run feature participants captured at the end of a half-marathon