There’s an optimism in the air that only March can bring: the promise of warm, sunny weather – and the chance for hard-working athletes to win it all during March Madness. Throughout the tournament, NCAA basketball fans experience the familiar heart-pounding rush; games with outcomes that either make or break these players’ dreams – and our brackets.
But with all that emphasis on winning games, brackets and championship titles, one major sponsor is taking a hard step back.
In a seemingly misguided effort to stay hip (like Dr. Evil), Powerade, the official sports drink of March Madness, is pandering to what they think Gen Z is all about: eliminating emotional distress.
But when we stay within our comfort zone, what do we really accomplish?
The ad claims “pause is power”. Of course athletes (and everyone else) need breaks. Humans, after all, are hard-wired to require sleep. And for thousands of years, Sundays have traditionally been a day to rest, refresh and replenish ourselves both physically and mentally. But this ad is not that. It features Simone Biles, who famously bowed out of the Tokyo Olympic gymnastics finals for mental health reasons.
In the commercial (below), the gymnast is shown at a press conference, announcing she’s “taking a step back”. Then the video cuts to Biles getting a manicure. “Sometimes you’ve gotta stop to be, you know, an actual human,” she states.
“Simone was our primary inspiration for this creative concept, along with Gen Z consumers who are motivating us to talk about sports in a different way,” said Laura Legrenzi, Global Senior Manager, Shopper and Consumer Content. But it sorely misses the mark.
Not only does this ad commoditize mental health by turning it into a marketing campaign, but it points to a predominant message in our culture, and the direction our society is heading, if we don’t quickly change its course.
Since 1934, it’s been a great honor for Olympic champions and other celebrated athletes to be immortalized on Wheaties boxes, where they’d inspire kids every morning to try to be the best, and go for the gold.
That "breakfast of champions" winning mentality has shaped America profoundly. Some now think that’s bad.
A reminder to those individuals: our competitive nature has inspired groundbreaking scientific and technological innovations that have helped and saved millions of people. Americans put a man on the moon, developed the Internet, and invented chemotherapy, hearing aids, cell phones, microwaves, traffic lights – even ferris wheels and chocolate chip cookies; countless innovations that we all enjoy yet seem to forget where they came from.
Perhaps most importantly, our vying for victory has toppled dictators and brought freedom to persecuted individuals around the globe. Can you imagine if we bowed out of fighting the Germans in World War II, because the thought of it brought too much anxiety?
If we hit “pause” today, who’s going to step up and win the gold?
The Powerade commercial is the modern day equivalent of the Wheaties box, but with a starkly different message. “[Gen Z is] taking a more conscious approach to competing and winning,” Legrenzi explains, “they want to be great, but also have a life—and are not willing to sacrifice their happiness and wellbeing.”
If this is the philosophy that the future leaders of America want to adopt, we might as well give in to China and Russia right now – because our rivals most certainly are focused on winning, rather than taking a pause. When it comes to education, for example, China ranks 1st, and the U.S. has fallen to 25th.
When we see ourselves as victims and fold that into our self-concepts, it won’t yield much more than abundant self-pity and social capital with like-minded victims. Still, rebuking the notion of victimhood doesn’t mean we should avoid or bury difficult, painful experiences. Openness about mental health and mental illness needs to be normalized and de-stigmatized – without become an excuse.
If we are grappling with a mental health issue (or challenge of any kind), instead of allowing it to define us, let’s persevere, face it head on, work through it, overcome it and emerge victorious on the other side. That’s the true meaning of strength, and that’s what Powerade should be celebrating.
So when that commercial airs again during the Final Four this weekend, perhaps we should all take a “pause” and remember why we compete in the first place.