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Why did Adidas build a billboard for women to swim in?

Adidas has pledged to revolutionize its product offerings with the aim of making sport more inclusive for women. To launch its collection of accessible swimwear, it erected a billboard on a popular Dubai beach, then invited women to dive in. The team at Havas Middle East and Adidas give a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the activation.

“When I surrender to the water, my breath finds its rhythm, my body floats on the surface. The whole world goes silent around me. And I am not the only one.”

Above are the evocative words of Asma Elbadawi, a spoken word poet and sports inclusivity activist, written in celebration of her relationship with the water and the confidence it can bring to all women.

Commissioned by Adidas, the poem is part of a wider push to get more women to test the waters and experience the benefits of swimming as a way to unwind and switch off from day-to-day life.

Only getting to the point of submersion can be a difficult task. Only 12% of women are completely comfortable wearing a swimsuit at a public beach or pool, while body shame and lack of privacy are the two main reasons women don’t feel comfortable in their swimsuits. Not only that, but 59% of women aged 18-42 in the UAE believe the media creates an unattainable body image of female swimmers.

This is what Adidas found out when it commissioned YouGov to perform a survey so it could better understand what physical, emotional and societal barriers exist to sports participation, as part of its broader ‘Watch Us Move’ campaign.

Launched earlier this year, ‘Watch Us Move’ is a 2021 roadmap that aims to break sport taboos by revolutionizing Adidas’s product offering and services. When it found out that teenage girls were dropping out of sport at an alarming rate, with one of the key reasons being fear of period leakage, Adidas brought out performance tights as a way to revolutionize its product offering and services to better support the needs of its diverse female community.

So, when the survey found the barriers that prevent women from participating in swimming, it decided to design a range of swimwear, informed by community engagement and insights from around the world.

“In the ‘Beyond the Surface’ film, we cast four women from UAE with real, authentic stories behind them,” recalls Joao Medeiros, executive creative director at Havas Middle East. “The film was a celebration of every woman, both from the region and globally... from every walk of life. So to launch that movement here in the region, we needed an activation that also played into the same theme.”

He explains how the team came up with the idea of a swimmable billboard as a way to literally deliver women a sense of liberation and freedom.

“When we presented the idea to Adidas, we knew it was a long shot because when we had no idea how to pull it off,” admits Fabio Silviera, general manager at Havas Middle East. “Of the three ideas pitched, the swimming billboard was the one that Adidas immediately bought into. They were fully supportive, which made us believe that OK, we can pull this off.”

“We loved the creative idea because our whole point was to inspire the women in Dubai (and hopefully all around the world) to take a leap of faith and embrace the water,” insists Giovanna Altomare, marketing operations manager at Adidas. “So the idea of this billboard that has real women swimming inside, showcasing the movement of the water in front of people in a public space, was really driving our objective.” A great idea in theory, only they had three weeks to pull it off, from concept to final production, with Altomare admiting it was a “super challenging build”.

“It was not a matter of if we can. We had to do whatever it took to make it happen,” Silveira says on the billboard that took 32 people to build, working day and night for three weeks straight.

Five meters high and three meters deep, the swimming pool billboard was constructed with reinforced transparent acrylic, with the structure containing 11,500 gallons of water (the equivalent of 163 bathtubs). Inside the pool itself, the team installed a camera to stream footage live to the largest digital display in the city, amplifying the action to a wider audience.

“There is a tension between a billboard, which is by definition a place for everyone to look at it, and the women who swam, who said they felt fully comfortable – like they were alone while being watched by the world,” explains Silveira on how the stunt struck the right chord.

“The reason it resonates so well and why it traveled so globally is the simplicity of the idea,” he insists. “The power of the idea is its simplicity. You don’t need to explain much like an ad. You can put in one line and say, here’s a billboard that you can swim in.”

“It truly represents what the brand stands for and blends with the Impossible is Nothing campaign,” concludes Carlos Nadal, head of growth at Havas Middle East. “It ticks a lot of boxes.”

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