A fire has been lit in The United States of America.
The flames have been fanned for a long time, giving out an angry, dangerous heat that slowly simmered to the surface until it exploded into flame. It isn’t just now but has been so for as long as most of us can remember. It will happen again, like a furious eruption of hot water from a geyser that goes away just as quickly. But the heat remains, the rage unchanged until the ground erupts again only to be silenced again for a little while.
But like most times, while attention is drawn to the eruption, precious few wonder what it is drawn away from? Who, or what hides in the proverbial “dark under the flame?” This might be a dramatic way of putting it, but we no longer live in a world of subtlety, do we?
Why social media was on fire all of a sudden?
Social media was greeted, yesterday, to an image of NFL (possibly soon-to-be-ex) player, Colin Kaepernick. The photo in question is of Kaepernick’s face in black and white. In the center of it, was a small message reminding us to believe in something even if it meant sacrificing everything. Below it was the Nike logo, with its trademark slogan, Just Do It. This was months after Kaepernick made news by kneeling during the national anthem played before an NFL game. His kneeling was in protest of police violence against African Americans. It created an uproar and has caused major harm to Kaepernick’s career since many NFL teams refused to hire him after.
To say that the effects of the Nike ad were significant would be the second biggest understatement of the century. The first one being that Trump is a liar. The Internet went berserk. Hordes of people came out singing praises for Nike and their political stance on a troubling issue. Of course, since we are talking about America, you can rest assured that the remaining hordes decried the company. Some even went so far as burning their Nike shoes in protest. I won’t talk about the skin color or the dominant demographic of those who protested this new stance by Nike. I don’t need to.
There’s probably a side of the political spectrum on which you fall on, regarding mixing company policy, brands, and politics. However, amidst all of this, there is one clear winner – Nike.
On the surface, it’s obvious why. This is a smart, calculated and genius move, speaking from a marketing perspective. Nike has lost share value today (around 3%) but most of that can be attributed to people selling stock due to volatility fears. What Nike has gained is far more in value (some estimate it to be around $43 million) and meaning. Not only has it recaptured the attention and approval of its key demographic, it has re-bolstered its own image.
A sports brand with a spine?
Nike is no longer just a sports company. It is a sports company that has taken a stand. It is one that sees what is happening and in its own way, is lobbying for change. This isn’t the first time that Nike has taken a stand for ethnic minorities either. Around 50% of its employees are from minority groups and every year, it sells a special collection for Black History Month. It also puts out an annual LGBT-focused Pride collection. Its commitment towards inclusion and diversity is no secret and has been so for years now.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?
It is heartening to see a company actually make such a bold statement, a fact that cannot be denied. Accepting such oppression as a daily occurrence is an easy thing to do if you’re a powerful corporation and have nothing to worry about. Taking a stand against it is another matter altogether and yes, Nike does deserve praise for that, considering, especially, that it has NFL as a partner.
And yet, after all is said and done, does Nike truly deserve our applause? It would be unfair to say it doesn’t deserve a significant amount, but should those felicitations be unconditional?
Author and infamous critic of brands, Naomi Klein stated in her book “No Logo” that “…corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on the public and on individual space; on public institutions such as schools, on youthful identities, on the concept of nationality and on the possibilities for un-marketed space.” These words make a lot of sense in the year we are in now. Even as you sit and read this article, just swivel your head around and count how many brands you see. I could bet you a good amount of money that it’s at least five. Brands have entered and made their homes in our daily lives and we depend on them to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a life without them.
It’s a really interesting phenomenon when you consider it. Take a smartphone, for instance. If you’ve used Android devices all your life and Android shuts down production, you might find yourself at a temporary loss when it comes to using a phone of a different brand, which I guess is probably going to be Apple. If you disagree with that, tell me what happens when Microsoft stops producing Windows operating systems and you have to get a Mac? Instead of letting products and their utility influence our decisions, we let their brands do that instead.
But what does that have to do with Nike?
When Nike produces an ad with Colin Kaepernick, it is, in effect, saying that it stands behind what he believes. He protested against police brutality against African Americans. But apart from taking a stance, how does a huge corporation like Nike change the overall problem? Once the praising and the decrying dies down, what will have changed? Those who believe that the issue is real and needs attention will continue to do so. Right-wing Americans who believe the opposite will not have their minds changed. All that will change is a new brand that has indulged in political activism and become the new buzzword for a few weeks. In other words, the brand has made us believe it wants change, rather than actually making steps towards it.
This may sound cynical and yes, it is. I can admit that, but cynicism might be the only thing that saves us in these times of “alternative facts” and “fake news” – terms that represent all that we do not see. For instance, Nike may be protesting against police brutality, but this covers up the fact that it is Kaepernick who will take the brunt. His career as an NFL player, as he has said himself, is probably over. This might just be the final nail in the coffin for that. Nike loses share value but those who are against it are not even close to its key demographic. A large amount of money paid to Kaepernick, the money for the ad and that’s all. Everything that they gain henceforth is a profit.
How Nike successfully monetized and profited from activism?
They aren’t the only ones who have done this. Dick’s Sporting Goods became famous for removing guns from its stores following the Parkland shooting. Google and Facebook popularized the movement against Trump’s immigration ban. However, Dick’s Sporting Goods has faced a rise in popularity. Share prices have increased by 20%, even though it never made a statement or took an actual stance regarding gun ownership. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, became infamous for earning millions of dollars from anti-immigration ads.
In allowing brands to invade our lives, we have, today, allowed them to invade and monetize our anger as well. Google may tell us that it earned money from anti-immigration ads but that is just a part of its “revenue model.” It may even say that the ads are no longer monetized, and Google is no longer earning money from them. Dick’s CEO Edward Stack made an appeal as a private citizen during his pledge to revoke guns from his stores. On the other hand, you will never hear from him about how dropping guns helped him drop a niche, small, customer base that had an extremely large level of negative publicity surrounding it. A small loss for a huge gain; it’s how it works and it’s how it has always worked.
Today thousands of millennials my age who live in America are really happy and pleased with a company they love already. Celebrities like Common, 50 Cent and Serena Williams have spoken out in support while Donald Trump, who called Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” before, referred to Nike’s move as a “terrible message.” People should be happy because Nike has alienated the right kind of people. People should be happy because their voices are being heard.
If only the ones hearing those voices thought of something else apart from how they could gain from it because tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow, the police may beat, handcuff, shoot or arrest another black man without reason. The anger will rise again, and Nike will decry it using their ads and earn more revenue. It might even start selling products or t-shirts specifically branded around this new stand, while successfully drawing attention from the sweatshop labor it so religiously employs. Also, let’s not forget that the shoes that are being burnt, are shoes that have already been paid for.
Nike loses much less than it gains.
So, if you see Kaepernick’s face on a billboard with the Nike symbol, it wouldn’t be wrong to feel heartened because this WILL help. This WILL cause movement. But do not, for any reason, assume that the company, or any company for that matter, do something like this out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.
Just don’t do it.