Nike has never been known for abstaining from controversy, political or otherwise. The company recently stepped square into the middle of the fray by making Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.
The move ignited immediate outrage from some corners, with #boycottnike and #justburnit trending on social media. In predictable fashion, President Trump tweeted his disapproval, claiming Nike was getting “absolutely killed” with backlash.
But many consider it a brilliant PR decision. Within two days after Kaepernick tweeted the iconic campaign image – a black-and-white closeup of his face with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” – that single tweet generated more than 800,000 likes and nearly 350,000 retweets. The social media engagement alone is worth an estimated $43 million in advertising for Nike.
How it all started
As a quarterback for the 49ers, Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in 2016 when he refused to stand while the National Anthem played before football games. Instead, he took a knee as a protest against racial injustice. Inspired by his courage, many saw him as a folk hero, a sort of Paul Revere heralding the downfall of any semblance of national unity amid a steadily brewing culture war.
Some, however, saw his refusal to stand as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Kaepernick drew the ire of President Trump and became, at one point, the most disliked player in the NFL.
A stance for justice or for profits?
While many applaud Nike’s decision to take a stance on an important social issue, critics are quick to question the company’s motives. As Nike executives are certainly aware, taking a side can be lucrative. Endorsing Kaepernick heightens Nike’s image as an edgy, forward-thinking company with a conscience. The move also appeals to Nike’s target demographic: younger, more progressive generations.
Despite the messaging of its marketing campaigns, however, Nike isn’t exactly a leader in the realm of social justice. Just this year, the company came under fire for allowing widespread mistreatment of female employees. And it has long struggled to ward off criticism surrounding its treatment of impoverished factory workers overseas.
Still, whether you’re setting fire to your sneakers or rushing to the store to buy 10 new pairs, we can all agree it was a bold move on Nike’s part – and one that has fostered renewed discussion of worthwhile social issues.