Nike’s Kaepernick ad is what happens when capitalism and activism collide

In a capitalist democracy, advertising offers one of the loudest megaphones around.
In a capitalist democracy, advertising offers one of the loudest megaphones around.
Image: Courtesy Nike/Handout via Reuters
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There aren’t many entities in our lives that have voices as loud as those of corporations. They buy up air time between the shows we watch, or sometimes placement within them; elbow their way into our social media feeds; and plaster their ads all over our physical spaces.

While their encroachment into ever more aspects of our daily existence has been underway for decades, it’s worth remembering that only in the last couple did they really start to make their voices heard on contentious political and social matters.

“When I first began studying the interactions between social movements and corporations 25 years ago, it was rare to see business take a public stand on social issues,” Jerry Davis, a University of Michigan professor of management and sociology, wrote in a piece for the Conversation, detailing the rise of corporate social activism. They may have publicly voiced their opinions on topics like taxes and regulations, but remained “scrupulously neutral” otherwise, he explained, because they had little, if anything, to gain by speaking out.

That has all changed, of course, as Nike recently demonstrated when it chose to include former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its ad campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the slogan “Just Do It.”

Kaepernick has been the figurehead for a movement of NFL players kneeling during the US national anthem in protest of police killings of unarmed black Americans. Reactions to those protests have been heated and sharply split down political lines. Though neither the ad nor the Kaepernick-narrated commercial Nike released explicitly mentions the protests, police shootings, or anything controversial, Kaepernick has become so synonymous with his kneeling that the two can hardly be separated. The tagline also alludes to his allegation that he remains unemployed as a quarterback because the NFL has colluded to ban him: ”Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Calls for boycotts of Nike predictably ensued, including from police organizations and at least one town mayor.

Still, many saw Nike’s ad as a shrewd business move. About two-thirds of Nike’s core customers are under 35, according to research firm NPD Group, and they tend to side with Kaepernick. Those young consumers, it’s said over and over, increasingly want to know that the values of the brands they’re buying align with their own, a desire that appears to have only grown stronger since US president Donald Trump’s election. In the aftermath of the campaign, wearing Nike practically became a political statement.

In that regard the episode highlights a change in the role corporations play in public life, particularly when it comes to politically sensitive subjects: Where once they feared to speak up, now it can actually be a liability for them to remain silent. But when for-profit enterprises insert themselves in issues like these, they invariably raise questions about their motivations and how much of the spotlight they should or shouldn’t take. They can wield a great deal of power with those big, far-reaching voices they have, and it matters how they use them.

For justice and profit

Even people who support Kaepernick and the NFL protesters may not love the idea of Nike using him in its marketing. One criticism is that it dilutes and commercializes Kaepernick’s message. Another is that it conflates buying Nike products with genuine activism. Among the most incisive to make the point was Hemal Jhaveri, who wrote in USA Today’s sports blog, For The Win:

Just as the beauty industry co-opted female empowerment and body positivity to sell soap and eyeliner, Nike’s ad creates a disturbing correlation between Kaepernick’s act of political protest, which required immense personal sacrifice, and the act of buying shoes and workout gear. For all their good intentions, this is the inevitable result of tying a political movement to a brand. Supporting Nike isn’t the same thing as supporting Black Lives Matter, but Nike certainly would be OK if you thought so.

Nike may well have been sincere in its support of Kaepernick. The company, which employs a notably diverse staff, has a long history of speaking out against racism, and Nike CEO Mark Parker has directly addressed the violence faced by black Americans too. In 2016, he sent a letter to Nike employees denouncing the persistence of racial discrimination, and concluded it with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. (Nike declined to comment for this story.)

But the New York Times also reported (paywall) that Nike was on the verge of dropping Kaepernick before it abruptly decided to include him in the Just Do It campaign. Nike had signed him to an endorsement deal years ago, but once he was out of the NFL, the company wasn’t sure it had any use for him. There were no team jerseys to put his name on. An internal debate reportedly ensued, and ultimately Nike renewed its deal with him and put him in the new ads.

Kaepernick still has little to do with any product Nike sells, but his attractiveness to Nike isn’t really about moving more units of a specific jersey or sneaker. It’s about branding, a discipline that has been a growing preoccupation of corporations. At least since mass manufacturing led businesses to search for ways to distinguish their own products from a growing sea of similar choices, companies and their ad agencies have swayed shoppers with brand images, made up of associations that go far beyond the usefulness of a product.

The author and activist Naomi Klein describes the evolution of the abstract but emotionally charged brand in her influential polemic No Logo. ”The search for the true meaning of brands—or the ‘brand essence,’ as it is often called—gradually took the agencies away from individual products and their attributes and toward a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people’s lives,” she writes. “This was seen to be of crucial importance, since corporations may manufacture products, but what consumers buy are brands.”

It’s the reason perfume commercials are so strange. And why advertisers set rules about what sorts of stories their ads can run next to in the media. And why they pay to see their products appear in movies and television shows.

Nike may make its money designing and selling sneakers, but even Nike co-founder Phil Knight has acknowledged that, at this stage, Nike is a “marketing-oriented company.” An indisputable part of what made it the immense success it is today is its ability to make itself synonymous with athleticism and transcendence through sport. Rebellion has been a key ingredient in that image making, animating ads like the Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” spot from 1993, or its 1987 ad promoting Nike Air with the Beatles song “Revolution” (devised by the agency Wieden+Kennedy, the same that created the new Kaepernick ad).

The Kaepernick ad recasts the struggles he has personally faced in his fight against a serious problem in American society—the continued killing of black Americans by police—as a rebellious act of transcendence that Nike absorbs into its own brand image.

FILE PHOTO: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, California, Oct 6, 2016. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo - RC15D997F5B0
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the the national anthem before a NFL game on Oct. 6, 2016.
Image: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Debates about whether corporate advertising tied to social causes is shameless profiteering or represent genuine efforts to effect change go back a long way. In No Logo, Klein points to examples of companies, including Benetton and The Body Shop, and their apparently heartfelt marketing campaigns that promoted progressive ideas.

An ad, of course, also lets the corporation share the spotlight with the cause it’s promoting and any associated virtues—far more so than if it were to quietly give money or assistance in other ways. Corporations frame these efforts as a way to use their powerful megaphones to amplify valuable social messages. And it’s true that in a capitalist democracy, where access to consumers is bought and sold, they can play a huge part in promoting worthy causes.

Representation through advertising

Whatever the problems inherent in marketing like the Kaepernick ad, it can’t be denied that Nike’s including him in the campaign has meant a great deal to a great many people, and in particular to black Americans. Black Lives Matter formed partly in response to the feeling that violence by US law enforcement had gone on without change or consequences for years. History by then suggested that the pleas of black Americans were just not being heard.

People participate in a protest against the National Football League (NFL) and in support of Colin Kaepernick in New York, NY, U.S. August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith - RC12CFF85440
A pro-Kaepernick protest in August 2017.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith

When Nike put Kaepernick, who had dared to draw attention to the issue on a national stage, in its ad, it affirmed that a powerful force in American life was listening and willing to publicly amplify the message.

“I think it’s a tremendous ad, personally as an African-American,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director and co-founder of the Perception Institute, which works to reduce bias and discrimination across various fields. “[A] corporate brand taking a stand to say, ‘Yes we see you, and yes black lives matter,’ I think that’s just incredibly powerful.”

Actress Jenifer Lewis, one of the stars of Black-ish, embodied this feeling when she chose to wear Nike at the Emmy Awards recently.

Johnson is fully aware that Nike might have financial motivations, but to her, that’s just part of how America operates. “We live in an ecosystem of capitalism, and so social justice is living in a very complicated structure of capitalism,” she says.

She believes it was an appropriate use of Nike’s platform, in contrast to Pepsi’s ill-conceived commercial with Kendall Jenner, which critics condemned as trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement. That ad featured Jenner amid a protest that looked noticeably similar to recent ones against police brutality, only it reached its climax with Jenner emerging from the protesters to hand a police officer a Pepsi, miraculously establishing peace between the two sides.

That business considerations were probably involved in Nike’s calculus about its ad also doesn’t bother Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online social-justice organization. “Of course it was a business decision,” he says. Nike, he points out, is a corporation in service of its shareholders.

“I think this says less about Nike and more about how much Colin Kaepernick and so many others have moved the needle in terms of how the public views him,” Robinson notes. “The fact that supporting [the NFL] protesters, supporting people speaking out, is considered good business shows how far the protests have come in terms of their acceptance and where the American population is at.” The lunch-counter protesters of the Civil Rights movement, by contrast, took much longer to turn from villains to heroes.

It’s an important point. The capitalist ecosystem doesn’t just cycle in one direction; the fact that brands need our dollars also lets us exert our influence on them. Johnson points to the highly effective boycotts of the Civil Rights movement as an example, and adds, “At the same time, when somebody does something right, it’s important to reward it and say, ‘I want to see more of this.'”

The pressure to be “authentic”

Corporations find themselves on very unfamiliar ground compared to a few decades ago. In a report last year, A.T. Kearney, a global consulting firm, argued that a fundamental shift is taking place in the balance of power between corporations and customers. In the past, it said, corporations sat at the center of the marketplace. Information and influence traveled, for the most part, in one direction, from businesses out to shoppers, whose self-worth was tied to what they bought and how much of it they owned.

Today, though, that dynamic has changed because of demographic shifts, changing values, and the hyper-connectivity offered by the internet and social media. Consumers can collectively be as loud as brands online, where they form communities based largely on shared values and beliefs. Information and influence don’t move in one direction, but several. Brands aren’t dictating the terms any longer, which means it’s become more important for them to draw in consumers by talking to them personally, earning their trust, and being authentic.

And in the politically polarized US, explains Aaron Chatterji, a professor of business and public policy at Duke University, to be authentic generally means taking a stance on contentious topics. “We’re so divided in this country, and these issues are so clearly partisan on both sides,” he says. “Well, if you don’t have an opinion, you must be trying to have it both ways.”

The store window at Wildfang in New York weighs in on Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings.
The store window at Wildfang in New York weighs in on Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings.
Image: Marc Bain/Quartz

Even if a corporation does have an opinion, the accusation remains a risk. Nike, for instance, has been called out for promoting itself as progressive with the Kaepernick ad, even as it faces a lawsuit from former employees over widespread gender discrimination within the company and donates large sums of money to Republican committees and candidates.

Chatterji says CEOs and companies in the US really started to get much more vocal with their activism around 2015. That was the year Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke out against (paywall) legislation allowing discrimination against gay people in the name of religious freedom. Often these corporate leaders do it out of real conviction about an issue. But they’re also expected to more than before, now that many CEOs are essentially celebrities with a direct line to the public via social media (see Elon Musk).

Though Chatterji notes that CEOs and companies do still face criticism for speaking out. “What’s interesting is it tends to come from different parts of the political spectrum, depending who you’re talking about,” he says. Liberals don’t want to hear brands espouse conservative viewpoints anymore than conservatives want brands taking liberal stances.

It puts brands in a difficult situation. They have the money and the ability to broadcast their message to a large audience that demands to know what their values are, but in staking a position they risk alienating a lot of the population in the process. Ultimately they have to weigh the risks, and decide the best route, financially and morally.

Nike built its business with the steady support of black Americans, including the extraordinary athletes it has signed over the years as well as the fans who have long bought up its sneakers. It has benefited from the creative energy of America’s rich and influential black culture. There is little debate over Colin Kaepernick among black Americans, and their many allies. There’s only right and wrong.

“I think it was a huge brand risk for them, obviously given the climate that we are in,” Johnson of the Perception Institute says of the chance Nike took putting Kaepernick in an ad. “But I think what they were doubling down on was the fact that if they stood on the right side of justice, and affirmed the humanity of black Americans, and the work that Colin Kaepernick is doing, that they would be rewarded.”

Those rewards aren’t guaranteed. They have to be earned, which means companies will keep wading into issues of politics and social change. “Every company talks about their corporate values and their culture,” Chatterji says. “But now with what’s going on in the political world, they’re being forced to figure out whether they actually stand for that stuff or not.”