The spot Under Armour created with their sponsored athlete Michael Phelps is quite probably one of the best sports commercials ever made. It has motivated and inspired me both in my own athletic pursuits and in my photography, so writing an ode seems like the right thing to do.
Ever since I first came across this video it’s resonated with me on a deep level. I think what makes the spot so great is that it does a number of different things extremely well. There’s quite a few commercials out there that showcase great camerawork, editing or processing. There’s also plenty of videos that tell great stories and show intense emotion and dedication. What makes the Under Armour spot unique is that it totally nails every single one of these aspects.

Visual style of the spot

Watching the video once more and then thinking about how my own body of work and style have expanded, I can’t help but notice how profound its influence on my approach to photography has been. The spot combines highly stylised and graphic shots of Phelps swimming in a dark and moody arena with shots of him outside the water that have more of a documentary and unstaged feel to them. In my own work, I’ve focused on these two approaches as well. For instance, for this series with Dutch olympic judo athlete Sanne Verhagen I used artificial light to create cinematic shots of her training, directing all the action. Contrastingly, for my ongoing project with the PSV Eindhoven youth squads, I adopt more of a documentary approach. In hindsight, I have probably been hugely inspired by the spot to adopt these two distinct styles.
The shots in this video produced by UK ad agency Droga5 are without any doubt phenomenal. The agency has managed to shoot some unique takes in the difficult underwater environment and to light the pool in an extremely dramatic and stylised fashion. Naturally this takes an enormous amount and added light and the production budget for this project must have been gigantic. Still, the final look of the swimming pool shots isn’t too polished and doesn’t feel artificial.
In addition to these stylised shots, the video shows a great number of various scenes in the daily life of Phelps. I’m not quite sure whether or not the ambient light was modified very much in these locations, but Droga5 has done an excellent job of making these shots feel real. There’s other people present in some of these scenes and the camera was shot handheld, giving the shots a documentary feel. Still, through color grading and toning, the scenes were given a sort of cinematic and moody look. I’ve always been a sucker for the cinematic style, aiming to apply it in much of my own work, so it wasn’t hard for me to be won over by this style.

Sound and feeling

In terms of sound, it’s interesting to note there’s no voice over in this video. We’ve all seen the commercials that encourage viewers to work harder, train harder, go deeper, face their fears and not hold back. Motivating as these lines may be, this spot didn’t need any. The shots speak for themselves. In addition, the soundtrack is an unconventional pick. Most sports spots come with intense and energetic beats or rock music, but Droga5 decided to try something else. Personally the tune gives me a rather nostalgic and melancholic feel. This is clearly an athlete who has suffered, paid his dues and made sacrifices.
For me the video reflects back on the work Phelp’s has put in and isn’t so much about what’s to come next. Clearly, with the spot being released some months before the Olympics, it was meant to suggest that Phelps was up for the challenge and all that was left now was to seize those gold medals. In addition, the spot ends with one of Under Armour’s taglines: it’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light. I feel that the clip isn’t about the light though, and not about winning, but just about having done everything an athlete can possibly do to prepare. The video reflects back to the months, years spent training, and is a sort of account of the pain Phelps has endured.

Under Armour as the quiet admirer

Another thing worth mentioning, and I’ve previously touched on this in my article on the power of visual stories about athletes in marketing, is that the Under Armour logo gets extremely limited airtime in the video. There’s a short one second frame at the end of the video, and of course Phelps wears Under Armour clothing throughout the video. There are no cheesy and artificial close ups though, and if viewers hadn’t seen the brand’s name in the title of the video they probably wouldn’t be aware of its involvement until the very end of the video.
For me, this works incredibly well because the athlete takes center stage. This video is all about Michael Phelps, and the Under Armour brand is just a quiet admirer and supporter. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the brand after seeing this video. Michael Phelps is shown as an extremely dedicated and hard working athlete, supporting an athlete like that must mean Under Armour has a genuine love for sports and helping athletes reach their maximum potential. By not shouting their brand name and logo to viewers, the brand is able to establish a far more genuine and deeper connection.
When Michael Phelps came to the Under Armour headquarters to see a work in progress of the video, his reaction was captured by a staffer. To me this just goes to show how spot on the video is and how well the Droga5 and Under Armour crew have managed to portray the athlete’s dedication and hard work.


Allowing the athlete to shine

To conclude this praise for the Under Armour video, I’d just like to make the case for shooting genuine visuals with athletes instead of contrived photos and video where the product takes center stage. I absolutely get that in the end brands have a product to sell and they wouldn’t be sponsoring the athlete if they hadn’t. Brand managers should resist the urge to push their product in the viewers’ faces though, and instead allow their athlete to shine. By honouring and celebrating the athlete, that athlete’s subsequent endorsement of the brand becomes that much more powerful.