Nike, the sports apparel company, has released what may rank as the shrewdest ad of the year featuring ostracized football player Colin Kaepernick. The Nike ad, to mark the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan, features a tight closeup of Kaepernick’s face with these words imposed over it: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” followed by Nike’s hashtag slogan #JustDoIt.
Kaepernick, as even non-football fans probably know, inspired a movement to protest racial injustice and police brutality against people of color by choosing to kneel, rather than stand, for the national anthem before a National Football League game.
The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s protest caught on, was joined by dozens of other players across the NFL and sparked a nationwide debate about the meaning of the anthem and the conduct of police in our communities. As a result, Kaepernick has not been able to get a job in the NFL since.
It’s all part of our culture wars. But politics and protests aside, the Nike ad demonstrates an uncanny ability on Nike’s part to understand its customers and to tap into the spirit of the age.
While reviled by President Donald Trump and denounced as a traitor by many, Kaepernick ranks as a folk hero to millions. His protest may have cost him millions of dollars in lost income and the chance to play a game he loves at the highest levels of his sport. But his stance against police brutality and the reaction it ignited also has made Kaepernick an icon of the age.
People who never watch a football game know who he is. In November 2017, GQ named Kaepernick its citizen of the year. Amnesty International gave Kaepernick its Ambassador of Conscience award. And his willingness to continue his protest despite what it has cost him has drawn comparisons with Muhammad Ali’s anti-war stance a half-century ago when the boxing champion refused to go to Vietnam.
Nike understands all this. Nike knows that the company is not so much in the shoe and T-shirt business as in the hero business. Nike partners with top athletes around the world to inspire people to improve their lives in many ways — with Nike supplying the products they need.
And it’s working. Mentions of Nike on social media have soared since it announced the Kaepernick ad. Tennis star Serena Williams, who is also part of the ad campaign, posted this on Twitter: “Especially proud to be a part of the Nike family today.” Her tweet drew roughly 200,000 likes and retweets. Kaepernick himself has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter.
Not all the social media reaction was positive, of course, since some postings showed people destroying their Nike products to protest the ad. A #boycottnike hashtag was trending on Twitter. And in Tuesday’s stock market trading, Nike shares closed more than 3 percent lower, reflecting some investor worry — though it still is near its 12-month high.
But among the younger, athletic audience that Nike hopes to reach — and to sell to —the Kaepernick ad looks like a deft piece of marketing. That Trump reviles Kaepernick? Even better, in the eyes of millions of Kaepernick fans. In a good bit of timing for Nike, just about the same time Nike released its Kaepernick ad, a labor arbitrator denied the NFL’s bid to throw out Kaepernick’s complaint charging NFL owners with collusion to deny him employment as punishment for starting the anthem protests.
By dismissing the owners’ request, the arbitrator ensured that Kaepernick and his allies will now be able to generate more publicity — and more embarrassment for the league — whatever the ultimate outcome of his arbitration case.
Nike is already among the most widely recognized brands of sports apparel in the world. It has contracts with half the schools in the Big Ten conference to brand their athletic apparel, including Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. It partners with star athletes from many nations and emphasizes in its ads and programs its commitment to opportunity and the potential of exercise and sports to inspire and lead human innovation.
With those sorts of sponsorships and that sort of mission, Nike’s Kaepernick ad makes all the sense in the world. That it may also deliver a thumb in the eye to the NFL owners and, indirectly, to President Trump is no accident. Nike is too savvy not to know that the anger of Trump and the owners will inspire more people to buy its products.
That some will also stop buying Nike because of the Kaepernick ad may be true. But I’m betting that Nike did the math and feels comfortable with its ad, knowing it will come out ahead in this latest skirmish of our culture wars.