Give Nike Credit For Paying Colin Kaepernick, But That’s It

We can applaud Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick, but stop short of heaping praise, because their controversial ad was nothing more than good business.

Call me a cynic, but I believe that corporations exist for the sole purpose of making money. As much as we hope that the corporations we give our hard-earned money to are not evil, I simply do not believe that (successful) corporations would sacrifice their bottom line to stand behind a social cause.

Call me a pessimist, but I believe that there are three types of corporations: the unsuccessful, the bad, and the less-bad. As much as we hope that the corporations we give our hard-earned money to don’t support ideologies that we object to, I believe that anytime a corporation makes a statement on any social issue, it is at least 50% the result of bottom-line calculations.

Which brings us to The Swoosh, also known as: Nike. A brief recap of the past week’s events: On Monday, September 3rd, 2018, Colin Kaepernick tweeted out an image of a Nike ad with a close-up of his face, with “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” across his face, and The Swoosh and “Just do it” at the bottom.

As you might imagine, since we live in the age of social media, there was outrage. Nike socks were cut up. Shirts were lit aflame. A boycott was hashtagged. Others, on the opposite end of the “I have thoughts on Colin Kaepernick’s protest” spectrum, applauded Nike for, essentially, picking a side in this highly-political and divisive issue. As described by the New York Times:

“In an era rife with divisive political discourse, most major public companies try to avoid taking stances that could make customers angry, particularly when rabid social media campaigns can cast any decision into a larger social statement. Yet Nike has signed Mr. Kaepernick, perhaps the most divisive American athlete of his generation, to a lucrative new contract and will produce branded apparel with his name and image.”

Nike deserves credit for that. While the NFL has responded to Colin Kaepernick’s protest by exiling him from the league, Nike could’ve very easily faded into the background, Homer Simpson-style, and we all would’ve attributed it up to Nike’s relationship with the NFL, which was just renewed for another eight seasons earlier this year. Give Nike credit for siding with Kaepernick despite their relationship with the NFL.

Give Nike credit for picking a side, but don’t give the corporation credit for why it picked a side. According to Bloomberg, this particular ad, by the end of the week, has already brought in $43 million worth of media exposure, about $19 million of which is considered “positive” (the remaining $24 million is split between “negative” and “neutral”). I think it’s safe to assume that Nike did not spend $43 million on this ad campaign.

Bloomberg also notes Nike’s consumer demographics: “Two-thirds are younger than 35, and it’s an ethnically diverse consumer base.” Guess which demographic groups don’t have a problem with Colin Kaepernick peacefully-protesting police brutality against African-Americans? I would venture to say that the answer is most people younger than 35 and most people who are non-white. I think corporations are soulless; I don’t think they’re stupid.

As Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst told the New York Times:

“I think Nike went into this absolutely knowing what they were doing, with the intention that some people would be offended. But the people buying their products, whether they are a millennial or a Gen Z consumer, those consumers want their brands to take visible, social positions, and this is an opportunity for Nike to do just that.”

You don’t get credit for doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Keep in mind that Nike is not exactly a paragon of moral and ethical behavior. This is a corporation with a decades-long history of sweatshops. Back in April 2018, a band of male executives were ousted after numerous complaints of sexual harassment by numerous women, and the company’s lack of action, were made public. A peak inside Nike, where there are executives such as:

“A boss who tried to forcibly kiss a female subordinate, and another who referenced a staff member’s breasts in an email to her. Then there were blunted career paths. Women were made to feel marginalized in meetings and were passed over for promotions. They were largely excluded from crucial divisions like basketball. When they complained to human resources, they said, they saw little or no evidence that bad behavior was being penalized.”

Keep that in mind before you decide to praise Nike. A few paragraphs ago I said that we’re in the age of social media. We’re also in the age of commodified protests. This is an age where Google co-opted #MeToo. This is an age where Pepsi co-opted #BlackLivesMatter. Nike didn’t exactly co-opt Colin Kaepernick’s protest — Kaepernick’s involvement in the ad speaks to that — but Nike certainly isn’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. Corporations have heads, and mouths, and arms, but they don’t have hearts.

I strive towards a career that ends up leaving me somewhere between Howard Beck and Howard Beale.

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