Nike set the internet on fire this week, announcing Colin Kaepernick will be the face of their 30th-anniversary Just Do It campaign by releasing this beautiful ad:
Within moments of Nike’s announcement, the you-better-stand-for-our-flag-you-disrespectful-shit-do-you-like-my-flag-shorts crowd got all fired up–literally. The air around the nation was scented with the smell of burning Nike’s as Kaepernick detractors took to social media in protest of Kaepernick’s ascension into Nike’s hall of sports gods. This is not what Nike means by “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. Ya dirty old socks are not a sacrifice—its a mercy killing. Anyways, later for the haters—
But flag waving fans aren’t the only one likely to have a match in their hand. The NFL just signed an 8-year equipment deal with Nike worth millions, while Nike’s renewal of Kaepernick’s deal was simmering on the back burner. The NFL can’t be happy to be tucked into bed with Kaepernick and Nike. The US military pays more than 10 million dollars to the NFL for so-called paid patriotism, including the national anthem display in games. The NFL really needs that anthem segment to go right and these protests are messing up their money. It’s not just bad blood between Kap and the NFL: a judge recently greenlighted Kapernicks lawsuit charging the league with collusion to go ahead. Guess collusion isn’t always fake news.
Stock prices fluttered in the initial hours after the announcement, but by the end of the second day prices had recovered and stocks for Nike were near a one year high. Unlike other recent boycotts including the boycott of the NFL that resulted in huge losses for the league or the Starbucks boycott that brought the coffee giant to heel in a matter of days, burning already purchased Nike apparel isn’t going to affect Nike’s bottom line. [Sidenote: boycotts work best if you DON’T GIVE YOUR MONEY TO THE COMPANY FIRST, DUMMY!] Also, if you Nike protesters had supported the end of police brutality instead of the end of Kap’s contract, maybe you could’ve had your football AND a decent pair of sneakers.
This isn’t the first round of boycotts at Nike. Nike’s labor practices overseas have long made the corporation a target of activists, and rightfully so. A nice ad campaign doesn’t erase oppressive labor practices, though it does sell a lot of iPhones and sneakers. And yet, the mainstreaming of Kaepernick that Nike achieves with this campaign is not insignificant. Our culture is awash in celebrities and politicians who proudly parade their lack of morals while their fans like, snap and retweet. Kaepernick has leveraged his celebrity to address issues of injustice and is deeply involved with his charity of choice Know Your Rights. He is an inspiration without the corporate endorsement. Now Nike’s campaign is likely to reach millions of people, presenting Kapernicks activism as an aspirational call to action punctuated with the most successful ad slogan in athletics: Just Do It. For better and worse, advertising shapes behavior. Is an endorsement deal a celebration or a commodification, or maybe both? The complexity and hypocrisy of corporate wokeness are not limited to Kaepernick and is worth some deep thinking.
The company made a bold choice, but a safe choice as well. As a global corporation, Nike already serves a majority-minority market. People in Asia, the global south and Africa buy sneakers–and outnumber Nike-burning NFL fans by a large margin.
In addition to our own swoon-worthy images of Kaepernick, Nike has also recently released ads celebrating women athletes in Mexico and launched a line of sports hijabs. Nike has seen the future and it is diverse.
We can’t deny that corporate social consciousness is hella problematic, nor can we deny that it does move the needle on issues that are ignored in the mainstream narrative. As companies move to cater to the growing share of their audience that is people of color, women, and other traditionally marginalized groups, we are likely to see more ads that package up culture and diversity. We don’t want our deepest convictions sold back to us by people interested in the bottom line. But Nike’s new content resonates with a world on fire and deep desire to act. We need to think more about the lack of separation between what we buy and who we are. We need to act to bridge the separation between who we are and who we can be. Hmmm, now wouldn’t Kaepernick be a good spokesperson for that.
Reality in America is definitely crazy enough, but there’s still room to dream a more just world. Our complex media environment provides opportunities to shift existing narratives, particularly around race and gender. We have to be careful to have our eyes wide open when we watch–both to see what’s new and to be careful not to let the same injustices get repackaged without us noticing. This country could use a little crazy dreaming these days; just be sure not to go back to sleep.