By Kalen Ingram
What to know about the Nike controversy before your Uncle Phil or Aunt Sheila brings it up at Thanksgiving.
On September 5, Nike released an ad campaign featuring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. The commercial, narrated by Kaepernick, features a two-minute montage of legendary sports figures such as Serena Williams and Lebron James, and ends with Kaepernick saying, “Believe in something, even if it means risking everything.” Not coincidentally, Kaepernick had already risked everything for a cause. Kaepernick ,who is now a free agent and pursuing a collusion case against the NFL, rose to political prominence in 2016 after he began kneeling during the national anthem. The reason was to protest racial inequality and police killings of unarmed black people. Kaepernick has remained unsigned from any NFL team since the end of the 2016 season. Critics label his protests as disrespectful towards the flag, the national anthem, the military, and law enforcement. In numerous press conferences, Kaepernick has made it abundantly clear that his protests were a result of the killing of unarmed and innocent black citizens. Racism has become so ingrained in American culture that when someone protests racism, other see it as protesting America.
Because of what Kaepernick stands for, this ad campaign was met with considerable opposition. The National Police Association (NPA) launched a petition asking Nike to officially terminate their partnership with Kaepernick. The NPA believes that Kaepernick has not sacrificed anything during his time fighting for equality compared to their officers in the line of duty. The NPA has a nearly 6,000 signatures for the petition with a goal of 7,500. Nike has also received backlash in the form of boycotts. People have shared pictures of the burning and cutting of Nike merchandise on social media. Even the President shared his opinion of the matter via twitter commenting, “What was Nike thinking?”.
From Nike’s iconic swoosh symbol to their strategic advertising, they obviously know how to market their brand. This makes it incredibly likely that the company thoroughly anticipated the controversy that would greet its latest ad and apparel deal featuring outspoken activist Colin Kaepernick. So why would they make the move anyway? Beyond this change, Nike is projecting a clear shift of interest. Young, liberal audiences quickly began applauding Nike for the activism inherent in their support of Colin Kaepernick. But Nike is not launching this ad campaign just to be on the right side of history; they know the financial value of controversy. Less than a week after the ad was released, Nike racked up 2.7 million mentions on social media totaling $43 million in free advertisement. Ultimately Nike’s first duty is to their shareholders. Though some may have been skeptical about the boycotts, there is no denying that Nike has made a profit.
This is not Nike's first time taking a side on social issues. This year, Nike also aligned with the #MeToo movement when women at the company’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon came forward with complaints about marginalization and a toxic work environment. Subsequently, several high-level executives were let go from the company. Nike is also fully supportive of the initiative to support LGBT employees so that they are treated fairly and with respect in the workplace and the community. Nike has created the Nike Equality PAC to bring marriage equality to Oregon. Of course, in business, before any company speaks out on public matters, they must ask themselves if their customers want them to do so. In this case, Nike consumers say yes; recently in a poll of 1,000 American consumers, two-thirds said they wanted the brands they buy from to have opinions on public matters.
But would this majority flip if the brands they wished publicly held stances on social issues favored a disagreeable perspective? It would be hypocritical to expect companies to vocalize support for issues the consumers favor, but refrain from a public stance on those issues the consumers might oppose. Regardless, any company’s stance on specific issues might affect our opinions of them, but ultimately would it be cause enough for them to lose our business?
Nike’s reasoning for releasing such a controversial ad is that they want to be on the right side of history. But there is no reason why Nike can’t be on the right side of history and make money at the same time. In fact, to date, Nike has sold out of women's Kaepernick jerseys and has made $6 billion from their ad campaign and partnership with Kaepernick.