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11 September 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 3:10pm

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign: conscious capitalism or advertising ploy?

The backlash has been extreme. But so has the support. 

By Sam Forsdick

Last week, the internet was hit with images of $120 trainers being set on fire as #BoycottNike trended. It was a hysterical response to the sportswear giant’s latest “Just do it” advert, but, ultimately, it’s one that’s working in its favour.

The ad in question features Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who in 2016 began kneeling rather than standing during the US national anthem in protest at racial injustice, in particular, the killing of black Americans by police officers. As a result, Kaepernick has been effectively barred from playing by NFL team owners who refuse to hire him despite his widely acknowledged skills.

Written across Kaepernick’s photo, along with the brand’s signature “Swoosh” are the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

There has been a social media backlash since the campaign’s release, polls have suggested a 34 per cent fall in Nike’s favourability, and a Louisiana mayor has prohibited the use of Nike’s products by his city’s recreation programmes. President Donald Trump has also, unsurprisingly, weighed in on the discussion, tweeting: “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?”  

Such a fallout from the brand’s decision to partner with Kaepernick, who has been without a team since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in 2017, was predictable; NFL players following his lead in “taking the knee” have been met with accusations of being unpatriotic and disrespectful to veterans.

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Nike’s marketing team would have been well aware of this, and the potential negative consequences, yet they’d have likely also expected public reactions to have been just as binary as the black and white image they chose – as has indeed been the case. The sudden bout of images of defaced Nike apparel being shared online, and the subsequent media attention, have done little to affect Nike’s bottom line; in fact, the opposite is true.

Google trends shows a 76 per cent upsurge in people searching for the brand since 1 September, and its social media mentions have increased by 1,678 per cent according to 4C Insights. The growth in discussion has translated to sales too: since launching their divisive ad campaign, Nike’s online sales have grown by 31 per cent.

The move towards capitalism with a conscience is a popular one. An Edelman survey found that 60 per cent of millennials are “belief-driven buyers”, who purchase brands that share their political beliefs. It also showed that these consumers tend to be on higher incomes and expect brands to take a stance on issues. As Edelman’s CEO Richard Edelman said: “Brands can no longer buy consumer relationship, they earn it through action”.

Jerry Davis, associate dean for business and impact at Michigan University’s Ross School of Business, tells the New Statesman: “Nike is correctly reading who their customers are and what their preferences are going to be.”

The advert shows the change in social attitudes in the past thirty years; in the early Nineties Nike would not make such a bold statement. During a 1990 election campaign, the sportswear brand’s biggest spokesperson Michael Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt – an African American Democrat running for senate against the segregationist Strom Thurmond in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. When asked why, he simply said “because Republicans buy sneakers too”.

Davis says: “It feels like the perfect bookend that Nike, and its most famous spokesmodel, are now the brands that are purposefully diving into something political. I think that’s a harbinger of things to come.”

Brands such as Nike are able to be more daring in their endorsements as they have a better understanding of where their customers’ allegiances lie. “The demographics of the people who don’t like Colin Kaepernick could be stereotyped as living in a retirement community in Florida and they probably weren’t going to be spending $200 on Nike sneakers anyway,” Davis says. “With Nike their demographic is going to be more urban and cosmopolitan and would likely be liberal.”

Although his first response would be that the move to encompass politics in advertising is “about getting more customers”, Davis adds: “One reason why companies take activist stands is because that’s what their prospective employees want to see, so the ability to recruit people with the right talent depends on vividly expressing values that align with theirs.”

Ultimately Davis argues that brands have been encompassing aspects of lifestyle in their adverts for a some time. Last year’s Equality campaign looked to the power of sport to bring people together. Looking back further, Nike’s 1995 “Just Do It” campaign was fronted by Ric Muñoz, an openly gay and HIV-positive athlete, at a time when the issue was still taboo.

However, speaking to the New York Times, Nike’s then advertising director, Joe McCarthy, said: “We didn’t set out to make a statement about H.I.V. or AIDS… This isn’t a cause Nike is getting behind.”

Although the latest move by the brand is not out of step, the high profile endorsement of Kaepernick – and the strength of the partisan response – is perhaps more revealing. As Davis puts it “in our insane postmodern age – where politics looks like an episodes of Black Mirror – it’s not surprising”.

The use of political messages in advertising is quite easy to cynically write off as an advertising ploy aimed at increasing profits. But they can strengthen the brand’s message as well as the activists’. Ultimately the Kaepernick advert has done both.

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