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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is all about profit, not protest

The sportswear giant’s controversial commercial has set social media ablaze – and that was the whole point all along

A Nike billboard featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick on display in New York. Angela Weiss / AFP

From flaming flags to burning books, fire has a long and unpleasant history as a symbol of political outrage. Last week that already disagreeable narrative gained a new paragraph. This time the object for conflagration was the humble sports shoe, as a small number of angry Americans began setting fire to their trainers.

So, what would prompt someone to torch their own clothing? This particular auto-da-fé was sparked by Nike’s latest advertising campaign and I’m fairly certain that such a hot-blooded response was the global sportswear giant’s plan all along. After all, nothing attracts the attention of the buying public like a flaming argument.

On the face of it, the content of the commercial is far from inflammatory, featuring appearances by sporting figures such as the tennis champion Serena Williams and the basketball star LeBron James. However, it does possess one notable incendiary element – the fact that it is fronted by Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, came to widespread recognition in 2016 when he began “taking a knee” – kneeling, rather than standing – while the US national anthem is played before American football games. Kaepernick was drawing attention to issues of racism and police brutality in the US. This form of protest caught on with other players, much to the disquiet of certain sections of the American public. He eventually drew the ire of none other than US President Donald Trump in a typically fiery tirade at a Republican party rally in September last year.

Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick has catalysed a clamorous, yet ultimately impotent, backlash. Within hours of the ad airing last week, #Nikeboycott was trending on Twitter and images of running shoes being set ablaze began doing the rounds on social media. I can just imagine the executive team at Nike watching these events unfold on their phones, laughing triumphantly, punching the air and high-fiving each other.

A common rebuttal to those posting their smouldering shoes on social media was: “Why not donate them to a charity instead of incinerating them?” That, however, misses the point of what fire means in this context. Here, the flames symbolise rage, eternal punishment and vengeance.

But setting fire to sporting apparel you have already paid for is hardly likely to change the world. It is not even going to damage Nike’s bottom line. This extra publicity will do nothing but benefit the company in the long run, as well its executives know. In fact, according to a report by Edison Trends, a digital commerce research company, that has already happened, with a spike in sales of 31 per cent over the recent Labour Day weekend.

The commercial has already become the foundation of an internet meme, spawning hundreds of spoof lookalikes featuring various reworkings of the campaign’s slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Like every corporate behemoth, however, Nike, believes above all else in profit.

This all looks like a very divisive and ethically dubious advertising strategy to me; something straight out of the Edward Bernays playbook.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and a man who would later become known as the founding father of the public relations industry. Bernays was fascinated by his uncle’s ideas and began using the same psychological insights to help corporations sell products. His most infamous campaign was an attempt to associate cigarette smoking with women’s empowerment.

Back in 1928, the US tobacco industry realised that the general public disapproval of women smoking was bad for business. The then-president of the American Tobacco Association suggested that encouraging women to smoke would be “like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard”. Keen to overturn this widespread taboo and scoop up millions of dollars in extra revenue, the industry contacted Bernays.

At a public parade in 1929, Bernays hired a group of young women who, on his command, were instructed to light up cigarettes. He had spread the word that this was a protest against women’s inequality. The cigarettes were referred to as “torches of freedom”, and the stunt provoked a national debate about women’s rights to smoke, just like men. Tobacco company profits soared.

In the same way, the Nike ad is not about political activism. It is about selling expensive sporting apparel. I see it as an attempt to shake off the notion that the company’s logo represents a soulless tick of conformity on the leisurewear of humanity. It seeks to refashion it as the swoosh of salvation, a symbol capable of transforming underdogs into overachievers.

The larger question raised by this campaign, however, concerns the dangerous trend in global corporations hijacking social activism to help sell their products and build their brands. Pepsi tried and failed – remember the furore surrounding its advertisement with Kendall Jenner and the police officer? Likewise, people will eventually see through the thin veneer of social activism masking Nike's brazen capitalism.

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University

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