Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Ad Campaign Is About Money First

You have to give it to Nike. They have owned social media for the last 24 hours. They unveiled Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of their latest campaign and the response was seismic.

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Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of branding for North America, told ESPN:

“We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.”

For those of you that don’t know, Kaepernick was a quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, when he started kneeling during the national anthem to protest against the police brutality that lead to the deaths of black men and women. He was good enough at his job to go to a Superbowl and lead one of the best teams in the sport. His protest was seized on by Donald Trump, who mischaracterised the protest as an attack on the anthem and the military. He was cheered when he said:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”

Trump kept attacking the NFL, with one owner admitting that Trump’s attacks were a “big problem” for the league. When Kaepernick went unsigned last season, despite being healthy and capable, he sued the league for colluding against him and essentially blackballing him from the league, costing him millions of dollars. That isn’t hyperbole by the way. The average quarterback salary takes up about 8% of a team’s salary cap, which, this year, is $177.2 million. That means that if the league has colluded to keep him out of the league, he has lost over $25 million since he went unsigned.

Kaepernick has been badly treated by the NFL and it is tempting to see Nike’s support of him as a positive example of corporate social responsibility. There’s something comforting about believing that a company that you choose to invest your money in has a moral compass. But if you believe that “doing the right thing” is the main reason that Nike has used a divisive figure like Kaepernick in its latest campaign, I have some magic beans to sell you. As one of my friends said:

“[The] whole fusion of consumerism with political identity is the height of cynicism on the part of corporations, and the height of child like naivety on the part of consumers.”

That take seems harsh, but I can’t escape the feeling that it is accurate. A softer version of the same take is found in this thread:

We need to keep it real. Supporting Kaepernick will make Nike lots of money. Kaepernick’s support base is broad and it is not difficult to imagine teenagers of all colours, civil rights activists and self-described liberals rushing to buy apparel that links them to him. Brand activism and tribalism are important in 2018. As society becomes more polarised, so it becomes financially astute for companies like Nike to pick a side. Looking at the American market, whilst Trump may be the president, his supporters, particularly his most rabid ones are in the minority.

This deal will also do wonders for the Nike Brand (as another friend put it: “Brand equity makes money”). It is easy to imagine an advertising campaign that incorporates their support of Kaepernick, Serena Williams and Michael Jordan and frames Nike as always being on the right side of history. That theoretical campaign makes me deeply uneasy; I come from a historical minority and understand how companies have engaged in corporate social responsibility in decades past, whilst ignoring the plight of ethnic minorities. And that’s to say nothing of how its products are made.

And, really, how difficult is it to fully support arguably the greatest athlete in one sport (Jordan) and inarguably the greatest athlete in another (Williams)? Chris Rock, in a famous stand up routine talked about his distaste for n****s, saying:

You know what’s the worst thing about n****s? N****s always want some credit for some s**t they’re supposed to do… A n**** will brag about some s**t a normal man just does. A n***a will say some s**t like, “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb m**********r! What are you talking about? What are you talking about?

This 22 year old stand up routine does much to express my feelings about Nike’s positioning as socially responsible. Nike is a business. Businesses are supposed to make money. Putting Kaepernick on a t-shirt will be good for their bottom lines. The decision to feature Kaepernick makes me want to scream: You’re supposed to, you dumb… Full disclosure: I’ll buy a Kaepernick shirt. Just know that I’ll be doing it with a full understanding that doing so isn’t going to make the world a better place, nor does it make me better than anyone.

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