In 2016 Colin Kaepernick, a football player with the NFL, used his profile as a quarterback to take a stand and protest police brutality against African-Americans and other minorities. Instead of standing during the National Anthem, he ‘took a knee‘.
The gesture reverberated throughout the league with others joining his action and became a lightning rod for commentary and condemnation across media and politics. Eventually, the act attracted the ire of the current US President, Donald Trump, who used Twitter to condemn the player’s action, reframing it from a protest about race to an unpatriotic act. (Why I think the reframing is relevant will become apparent soon.)
Kaepernick eventually opted out of the final year of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, becoming a free agent in 2017 and eventually unemployed.
By now, unless you live in a news vacuum, you’ll have seen at least some passing reference to Nike’s 30th-anniversary campaign for ‘Just Do It’ featuring Colin Kaepernick. In talking to people since it launched last week, I’ve noticed they sit somewhere on a spectrum, with shameless cultural appropriation on one end and inspiring advertising on the other.
— Nike (@Nike) September 5, 2018
I lean more towards the appropriation end of the spectrum. Using one man’s principled stand against discrimination and violence to sell shoes just feels wrong. Yet, the deal could also be painted as a win-win. Kaepernick is out of work as a footballer, and one hopes aware of the trade he’s making, and Nike never turns away from the opportunity to repurpose the actions of others under their guise of empowerment. So I’m conflicted.
Here is where the earlier reframing of Kaepernick’s actions shows up and weighs on the appropriation side of the scales. Because Nike must have known the ad would act as a lightning rod for the raging culture wars where controversy equals free placement and guarantees wider distribution. And people delivered in a response as predictable as it was disheartening.
Tweets, likes and shares spread across social media acclaiming the ad’s sentiment. And at the same time tweets, likes and shares denouncing Nike, and their association with the ‘unpatriotic’ Kaepernick, also roiled across the landscape. People set fire to their Nike shoes, cut the swish off their socks and generally shouted their displeasure.
I suspect the reaction was the very reason they led with Kaepernick, rather than Serena Williams or LeBron James who, while high-profile and outspoken, are relatively uncontroversial by comparison (both appear in the campaign). Colour me cynical about Nike’s assertion that alignment with their core values drove the campaign, and in particular, their supposed values of diversity, inclusion and using the power of sport in the world to take action. There were sales to drive — and drive them it did. It is reported that Nike has seen a 31% bump in sales.
I’m often called for comment when advertisements offend people and are reported to the watchdog body. Usually, it’s poorly played humour or sexual innuendo that gets organisations in trouble. And I always observe that many problems are created by lazy advertising, with a successful ad using smarts and connection to bring what the organisation cares about to their customers.
At its best advertising makes us feel … something. It lifts, inspires, engages and entertains us with the attached products and services as quiet bystanders. And Nike has masterfully mined empowerment to that end for decades, focusing their advertising on the endeavour of individual athletes who encourage others to strive (and buy).
But there’s a fine line between assent and exploitation and this campaign feels like it’s flirting with the wrong side of it. The fact the athlete in question is a willing participant doesn’t let Nike off the hook. Taking something already controversial and lobbing it into the waiting arms of the outraged takes little imagination and even less finesse. It’s lazy.
Nike certainly could have celebrated and supported both the spirit of Kaepernick’s actions, what he did and kneeled for, and their own values. What they chose instead manages to diminish them both, and as a result, their brand.
See you next week.