Last week, Nike released the newest ad from its 30th Anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. The photo, which was followed by a two-minute ad, features a black and white photo of quarterback/activist/American hero Colin Kaepernick with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” emblazoned in plain white font.
Predictably, an uproar ensued.
People were mad. Real mad. Or at least they acted like it.
In a viral tweet that has more than 90,000 engagements, one man cut the Nike swoosh off his socks to show, presumably, that he’d rather his upper ankle go cold than support a company willing to stand by while someone stands up — or rather takes a knee — and takes advantage of their right to peacefully protest an issue that they feel to be unjust.
Later in the week, President Trump tweeted, “What was Nike thinking?” Trump, as someone who claims to know a lot about business, must have been taken aback when Time reported that Nike sales increased 31 percent over the week following the ad’s release. It appears Nike was thinking about its bottom line.
This does point to one of the fatal flaws with Nike’s commercial activism. It’s all well and good that a giant company as forward facing as Nike wants to make an impact on social issues, but it sometimes seems incredibly disingenuous when you remember that this is the same Nike that just last year received a ‘C’ rating from the Ethical Fashion Report, a group that sheds light on how companies address forced labor, child labor and exploitation.
Nike didn’t improve at all on its grade in the previous year’s report because it has “minimal worker empowerment initiatives across its supply chain and received the bottom score in relation to implementing a living wage or improving wages across its supply chain.”
This just proves the point that there is no such thing as a “good” corporation. At the end of the day, Nike’s going to do what’s in Nike’s best interest. There are good people who work at Nike and have well-defined plans to make progress on social issues through their positions, but they all work under Nike founder Phil Knight — a man who has shown that he will use his millions to invest in Republican politicians to protect his vast personal wealth.
This was a tactical move that quite literally paid dividends for Nike and its shareholders.
There are many admirable qualities about the Kaepernick spot. The representation of disabled athletes on the same stage as some of the world’s most famous athletes is particularly impressive. Kaepernick is a hero that was blackballed from the National Football League and should have a large windfall coming his way when his lawsuit with the League is decided. Serena Williams is the best. And it’s not the first time Nike has used its brand recognition to advocate certain positions.
Nike has been at the forefront of many social causes over the last few decades. In 1992, the sporting giant released a series of ads promoting women’s sports and “girl empowerment” that made sports a path towards equality.
Earlier this spring, it released a hijab for those who choose to cover their heads during competition to the market and the world heralded Nike’s introduction to modest athletic clothing. This is an big issue facing global athletics, and representation matters, but guess what logo is printed across the side of the garment? Forgive the cynicism, but Nike released this line because it will make money and earn free advertising.
That being said, some credit must be given for focusing on controversial topics when they are just that.
The issue of social activism versus profit has notably caused issues for Nike in the past, most famously when Michael Jordan allegedly said in response to being asked why he wasn’t campaigning for a Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina, “Republicans buy shoes too.”
In an interview with NPR in 2015, former Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slammed Jordan for his lack of tact. “You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”
Three years later, Nike finds itself in a similar spot. Is it enough to preach change as a means to selling more shoes? As of now, it seems the message is the same it was 30 years ago: Just do it.