People are burning (their own) Nike shoes in their backyards and cutting the Nike swooshes off of (their own) socks while calling for a boycott. At the other extreme, people are praising Nike for its incredible bravery in taking a strong stand on a white-hot controversy. At issue: The brand's decision to feature Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback, in a 'Just do it' campaign.
I'm an American, an American-football fan, and someone who has strong feelings on the actual point Kaepernick has been trying to make—the protest against police brutality, especially against people of colur, that caused him to lose his job as a player. (There's a brief but somewhat opinionated backgrounder on Kaepernick below, in case you need it.) As such, I feel a strong desire to jump on the bandwagon of praise for the brand.
No doubt it is risky for Nike to feature Kaepernick at this moment in time, when the sitting president is well-known for putting brands on Twitter-blast when they weigh in on issues he likes to use for his own divisive ends. The NFL season is about to begin, with new rules in place designed to prevent protests such as Kaepernick's. Whether any current players will protest nonetheless—and the president's inevitable reactions—will surely be one of the storylines of the early part of the season.
Like people in most countries, people in the US have extremely strong feelings about their flag. But many have trouble understanding that it's a symbol that only carries meaning if it stands for something real. Such as, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or the right to not be gunned down by the police when you've done nothing wrong and are not armed. Or to see murderers brought to justice. The point is that certain people are primed to pounce on Kaepernick, so Nike knew a backlash was guaranteed.
Nike is also to be commended for its execution. The ad is simple and powerful. Because it focuses on the individual's character in the face of adversity, it's perfectly in line with the brand's positioning since forever. For those of us in this industry, it's not surprising that Nike would do this right. In fact it's nearly inconceivable to think of Nike fumbling something like, say, Pepsi did with its reviled Kendall Jenner film. Still, it's strong work.
Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. In aliens, yes, but also in brands that truly stand for things I hold dear, such as civil liberties and equality under the law. Probably a lot of people working for Nike do too. More to the point, the company is currently the official uniform supplier for the NFL. Coming out opposed to the stance the NFL has taken might put that lucrative business in jeopardy. Plus, a recent poll by NBC News and the WSJ said a majority of people in the US see kneeling during the anthem as an inappropriate form of protest.
All that said, I'm not naive enough to believe most brands would stick by a stand, no matter how morally correct, that was clearly detrimental to their business. Nike is merely taking a calculated risk, which by some accounts has already paid off. The brand works with many outspoken athletes, many of whom have defended Kaepernick, so it can't really afford to antagonise them. More significantly, the brand knows who its core buyers are. In a venn diagram, those buyers would only partly overlap with the portion of the population that objects to Kaepernick's protests. There would be strong overlap, however, among those who are just as outraged as he is, who think that he's been blacklisted, who see the reaction to him as inherently racist and believe that he's something of a hero for standing his ground.
Of all the people and entities involved this saga, Kaepernick is really the only one who deserves to be called 'brave'. Nike's simply smart to latch onto that.
Yoichiro Basso, GM of AKQA, Tokyo (which works with Nike):
Colin Kaepernick was a highly successful player at the NFL's most demanding position, quarterback. I know this all too well, because one of his best performances came in a playoff game where he absolutely torched my favourite team.
Like many sane people, Kaepernick became outraged by way too many incidents where people of colour in the US ended up dead for no apparent reason at the hands of police officers, who usually went on to face very little in the way of discipline. Kaepernick decided to use his prominence to call attention to such injustice. He began sitting on the bench, rather than standing up and gazing adoringly at a large US flag, as is traditional, during the playing of the national anthem before games.
This displeased many people, who saw it as disrespectful toward the flag and by extension the military service members who have fought and died for the ideals it represents. After listening to the concerns of some of these folks (imagine that!), Kaepernick took the suggestion of a veteran that he should instead take a knee during the anthem. As kneeling is widely understood as a sign of respect, this would allow him to protest without causing offense. Or so he thought.
Even as some other players joined Kaepernick, outrage also grew against him, fanned by conservative media figures who were aided and abetted by the right-wing propaganda machine that calls itself Fox News. This opposition has largely succeeded in reframing Kaepernick's protest as a 'national anthem protest'—a clever bit of marketing spin that even some supposedly credible media outlets started to use.
Kaepernick was released by his team and hasn't found another one willing to take him on since. As a fan of the game, I assure you that this is absolutely outrageous given Kaepernick's proven skills, especially relative to the atrocious stiffs that some teams have used in his position during his exile. In other words, it's pretty clear that the teams have either blacklisted him outright, or that none of them wants to deal with the 'drama' having him on the team might cause. They'd rather lose, apparently. The NFL has also changed its rules to prevent current players from continuing his form of protest. We'll see how that plays out when the season begins tomorrow.
Also, whatever one thinks of the issue, you have to admit that burning property you yourself paid for is a peculiar form of protest. I look forward to the day a car brand, say, Ford, angers American conservatives to the point that they begin setting fire to their own pickup trucks.
(This article first appeared on www.CampaignAsia.com)