Nike’s decision to make former NFL player Colin Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary “Just do it” campaign was heralded as the most political stand it has taken in its 50-year history. In the ad, the man whose knee-taking protests against police brutality during the national anthem sparked a country-wide debate is shown with the message “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The campaign was seen as “divisive” by many, with outraged conservative “patriots” sharing photos and videos of themselves burning their athletic gear branded with the company’s swoosh. In the face of all of the backlash, the big question of how Nike would weather the storm loomed large.
Last Thursday, the impact of Nike’s advertising strategy finally surfaced: Stocks in the company spiked to the highest they have ever been and were still at $83 a share on Monday. It is now apparent that, by in large, the ad campaign was a huge financial success. So much so that the campaign prompted Kaepernick jerseys to completely sell out, despite the fact that the former 49er is no longer even signed to a team.
Many view this as reason to celebrate. To some, Nike’s support of Kaepernick legitimizes the Black fight against racial inequality and proves that most want to stand “on the right side of history.”
However, as a Black woman far too familiar with big corporations’ long tradition of exploiting social justice movements for profit, I am less impressed. As a matter of fact, I am both horrified and dismayed by the idea that the biggest accomplishment of Kaepernick’s protest—meant to take a stand against racial injustice in solidarity with Black Lives Matter—is putting big money into the pockets of the white executives at the top of Nike and their shareholders.
As of right now, the only known connection Nike’s ad campaign has with actually addressing racial injustice is donating an unreported amount to Kaepernick’s charity, Know Your Rights. Despite having good intentions, Know Your Rights has drawn some criticism of its own. Kaepernick’s charity purports to address police brutality by educating people about their rights when interacting with police. This is a far cry away from the radical positions taken by Black Lives Matter, which advocates to address racism as a systemic issue whereby Black people are “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” By focusing on “educating” victims, instead of addressing the system that victimizes them, some argue Kaepernick’s campaign shifts the blame from the perpetrators of racial injustice to its victims.
While it makes easy sense for Nike to financially support Kaepernick’s activism efforts and for those efforts to even be applauded, it is not fair that the Black women and men who have developed plans of action that cut to the core of the issue (like those responsible for the Black Lives Matter Movement) do not benefit from the deal between Kaepernick and Nike, which was essentially inspired by their work. Some of the millions of dollars the athletic company is generating from advertising with Kaepernick should go to those already established movements and even lesser-known ones backed by research and academia, like the call for Baby Bonds as a means to end wealth inequality, as well as other calls for much-needed reparations. It has long been established that education alone will not cure the ills of racial injustice that has seeped into everything from policing to housing to the justice system. In other words, if supporting Know Your Rights is the start and end of Nike’s charitable involvement regarding police brutality and social justice, it can do a lot better.
Political “statement” absent of the right kind of action means nothing. And as a result, Nike is guilty of boldly exploiting not only Black social justice activism, but also the Black pain and oppression that inspires it.
Sadly, this is not the first, nor will it be the last time, a corporation has exploited social activism. Only last year, Pepsi was heavily criticized for producing an ad wherein Kendall Jenner warded off police violence during a protest by giving an officer in riot gear a Pepsi. And during the 2017 Super Bowl, Audi aired an ad titled “Daughter” to promote gender equality in the workplace; meanwhile, the car company did not have a single female board member. These corporate advertising charades are motivated by consumers, a majority of whom will boycott or support a brand based on its position on political issues, according to the 2017 Edelman Earned Brand study. As long as there is profit to be made and consumers are willing to turn a blind eye as to whether or not these corporations are actually doing anything meaningful to support the social causes they champion, big companies will continue in this trend of exploitation.
Nike has, indeed, made history: by using Kaepernick and what he took a knee for to turn an incredible profit. But if the company fails to meaningfully tackle the issues of racial injustice that inspired his protest, it simply engaged in political exploitation.
If that be the case, Nike will remain on the wrong side of history.