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The Cost of Controversial Campaigns

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The Cost of Controversial Campaigns

Eva Christopher

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“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

 

These are the words written across a close-up photo of controversial football player Colin Kaepernick, with athletic shoe giant Nike’s famous swoosh and “Just do it” slogan printed at the bottom. The advertisement, announced on September 3rd to mark the 30th anniversary of the company’s notable motto, has thus far been a remarkably successful yet contentious marketing scheme.

 

Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, made headlines in September 2016 when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality in America. His activism made national headlines, with many voicing their support or opposition to his actions. Despite this, Kaepernick’s jersey was top-selling in the following weeks and sparked a dividing conversation on the right to protest.

 

At the end of the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers to become a free agent at the beginning of the 2017 league year; however, as of September 2018 he has yet to sign with any team. He filed a grievance against the NFL in November 2017 which alleged that NFL owners conspired to exclude him from the league.

 

The slogan of Nike’s new campaign seems to reflect the path that has led Kaepernick to where he is now. He protested and seems to be currently unemployed as a result of his stance—hence why the “sacrificing everything” applies specifically to him. Pertaining to this aspect, some have questioned the ethical side of the footwear company’s advertisement: is it morally correct for a corporation as large as Nike to promote and profit based off Kaepernick’s beliefs and unemployment?

 

In all technicality, Kaepernick did agree to the basis of Nike’s marketing design being his very public personal losses. It doesn’t seem as though that is the root of people’s issues with the campaign; rather, Kaepernick represents a heavily disputed movement that has divided Americans. President Trump, a strong critic of Kaepernick’s actions in regard to the national anthem, gave Nike credit for taking advantage of the capitalistic system despite having a contradictory opinion on the situation. “As much as I disagree with the Colin Kaepernick endorsement,” said Trump, “in another way—I mean, I wouldn’t have done it—in another way, it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do, but I personally am on a different side of it.”

 

The president is correct: Nike’s new branding is completely within their right. While Nike stock suffered immediately following the announcement of the campaign—dropping 3% and losing $3.4 billion—it quickly recovered, closing at an all-time high on September 14th. Over Labor Day weekend, online sales increased by 31% and brought in an estimated $163 million.

 

Many notable public figures supported Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick. Tennis star Serena Williams tweeted that she was “especially proud to be a part of the Nike family.” Actors Michael B. Jordan and Taraji P. Henson and basketball player LeBron James also posted their approval of the campaign on social media. Black-ish actress Jenifer Lewis wore Nike to the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards red carpet. “I am wearing Nike to applaud them for supporting Colin Kaepernick and his protest against racial injustice and police brutality,” said Lewis. “We need more [of] corporate America to stand up also. These are not dark times, these are awakening times.”

 

But not all responses have been complementary. Upon the release of the advertisement, passionate arguers against what Kaepernick symbolizes publicized themselves burning their Nike products. The Texas Farm Bureau now prohibits workers from wearing Nike apparel to business-related matters. Truett McConnell University announced it would no longer carry or buy goods from a company who supports a person that “mocks our troops.”

 

College of the Ozarks President Jerry C. Davis said they will change their athletic uniform provider to Adidas to rid themselves of the distinguished Nike swoosh. “In their new ad campaign, we believe Nike executives are promoting an attitude of division and disrespect toward America,” said Davis. “If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them. We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”

 

Local governments also announced boycotts against the sportswear company. A Louisiana mayor proposed a ban on the usage or purchase of Nike merchandise in local recreational facilities (which he soon withdrew after it notably made headlines across the country). In North Smithfield, Rhode Island, the Town Council requested that all town departments refrain from buying Nike products. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety similarly released that the agency will sever ties with Nike as its primary uniform provider. “I will not support vendors who do not support law enforcement and our military,” said Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher in a statement.

 

The dissociation from Nike by these governments on local and state levels seems to have minor consequences besides wide publicization. These moves, however, do raise questions of the First Amendment, which declares freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Colin Kaepernick exercised the First Amendment with his nonviolent protest during the national anthem. Likewise, Nike utilized the First Amendment when they released their campaign in cooperation with Kaepernick. When the governments of Rhode Island and Mississippi terminated business with Nike, they, too, employed the First Amendment. Nike—a private player in America’s capitalistic economy—is allowed to take a controversial position for the sake of marketing. But should the government, which encourages commercialism, be permitted to publically boycott private corporations?

 

Regardless of the stance Nike appears to be taking by endorsing Kaepernick and donating to his “Know Your Rights” campaign, they have also contributed money to administrative organizations that principally disagree with the athlete’s opinions. The corporation gave nearly 3.5 times as much money to Republicans as they did Democrats this election cycle, further mystifying where the company truly stands partisanly.

 

Nike’s newly implemented marketing plot particularly targets young consumers, especially activists and those with liberally-inclined opinions. Reportedly, 10% of millennials and only 6% of members of Generation Z said that the advertisement discourages them from doing business with Nike. Even though controversy surrounds Nike’s decision and Kaepernick himself, the positive and negative attention from the press and critics alike on social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter barely dissuaded potential shoppers.

 

The message of the “Dream Crazy” video advertisement, which accompanies Kaepernick’s headshot as advertisement promotion, remains politically neutral. It neither blatantly encourages unification nor advocates for healthier dissonance. Kaepernick narrates a video montage of athletes facing and overcoming their personal and physical challenges. The clip ends with a skyline of triumphant competitors, each having defeated adversity in their own ways just as some would argue Kaepernick has with his new Nike partnership. Kaepernick’s voiceover concludes, “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.”

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