Ad Breakdown: Pirelli & Carl Lewis

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

1995 Pirelli ad with Carl Lewis

No matter how good you are, you can always be let down by poor equipment. That’s the crux of today’s ad from Pirelli. 

What I particularly like about today’s ad is that the headline – by itself – is a fantastic line. But it isn’t the focus of the ad. (The art is even better). In fact, the line was that good it became Pirelli’s slogan for 25+ years.

For the minority who haven’t heard of Pirelli, they’re purely “high-performance” tyres. And they’re one of the main sponsors for Formula 1, Formula E, Moto GP, WRC and many more “high-performance” events. 

And it’s their “high-performance” associations that allow this ad to work.

A Carl Lewis

He is one of only six Olympic athletes to win gold in the same event in four consecutive Olympic Games. He set world records in sprinting and long jump. And his 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10+ years is one of the sport’s longest undefeated streaks.

He was (and still is?…) a global sensation – and the ultimate athlete of his time.

If you look up the definition of “high-performance”, I’m sure you’ll find Carl Lewis nearby.

Today’s ad was the first of an ongoing campaign that next included French athlete, Marie-José Pérec. The fastest woman in the world at that time.

…you can probably spot the trend.

Both athletes featured in TV ads which took the original Carl Lewis print ad further and reinforced the same line.

Let’s take a look at the ad.

Pirelli and Carl Lewis advert from 1995

A strong visual idea

Written by Ewan Paterson, art directed by Graeme Norways and photographed by Annie Leibovitz at Y&R in 1995, the ad packs a lot of punch artistically.

A strong visual idea is always important because our minds process images much faster than words (thanks to evolution). So in your advertising, your art should always work hard.

Of course, sometimes, your headline or copy will do the heavy lifting. But generally speaking, great art direction will ‘do more’. 

…and that’s coming from a copywriter.

Above all, you need to do what’s best for the ad – and not try to make every ‘element’ steal the show. 

Because if you’ve got your headline competing against your art, your reader has no idea what to take away from the communication. It gets messy. Confusing. Almost overwhelming.

Instead, your ad should have just one focal point. 

And this is the premise of the “bent visual, straight headline” (or vice versa) adage. Two “bent” elements and your reader won’t take anything away from it.

Fortunately, here, this isn’t the case. 

The headline is straight. It doesn’t require much thought. And it complements the art. 

It’s a brilliant line – yes – but it doesn’t steal the show. 

It adds to an already great ad and provides context to the further “bend” the visual. This, in turn, provides another ‘dot’ for the reader to connect and feeds into the ‘aha’ moment (which we’ll get to later).

And, of course, at face value, it’s a very striking image that immediately gets attention.

A visual metaphor

Now, what I really like about this Pirelli ad is that there’s no product.

It’s a tyre ad with no tyre in it. 


Instead, the ad plays on some clever right-brained features. 

Carl Lewis personifies a fast, powerful vehicle. And his vibrant red stilettos are a visual metaphor for poor tyres. 

You don’t need to think hard about what happens when he sets off in them – and how much it will restrict him. And it’s easy for us to visualise how this pans out when driving a car.

I like how a small detail is the crux of an ad. It twists a normal image and completely changes the meaning. 

I guess it also dramatises the risk of bad tyres too – just in a completely different context.

A symbolic figure

Carl Lewis’s power aside, the ad also benefits from “The Halo Effect” too. All the existing emotions the reader feels about Carl Lewis shift (partially, at least) onto Pirelli – and we hold them in better account. 

The gain here is that the more we like a brand, the more likely we are to buy from them. If you can justify spending Pirelli prices on your car/motorbike, of course. 

(I guess that helps make them more desirable for us “non-high-performance” folk?…)


As we know, every ad should have an “aha” moment. This ad is no different.

If we overlook the “If you’re going to drive, drive”, which they could probably do away with…

Each element of the ad keeps you interested and keeps adding to the communication. It’s the product (well, logo), quietly tucked away in the corner, that provides the final ‘dot’. 

And when you spot it, everything gracefully falls into place.

What’s more, I really like the change in dynamics.

By this, I mean the art and headline hold you in one context, but the logo flips it.

Initially, you have Carl Lewis unable to sprint in high heels (which is somewhat amusing in itself), but once you see the Pirelli logo, you understand the context that’s intended. 

A summary

So, to close out, we have a strong visual idea. There’s a bent visual and a straight (but great) headline. 

A visual metaphor twists the image (and dramatises the ‘problem’). And the logo/product pieces everything together, becoming the ‘solution’. 

By using a well-known figure, Pirelli benefit from ‘The Halo Effect’. This allows them to borrow existing thoughts and feelings and channel them towards their brand.

A gold medal in my eyes. (Sorry…)

Another one?

If you enjoyed this and you’d like to read more, click here. 

Some of my recent favourites include… this from Polo, this from Altoids, or this from Reebok.

Or, if you’d like to be one of the first to see the next one, every two weeks or so, I send out a new ad breakdown to my subscribers. Subscribers get unique insights that I only share with my newsletter.

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