One Out of Three Cheers for Nike

One Out of Three Cheers for Nike September 17, 2018

Is Nike’s Kaepernick ad a political statement or exploitation?

The mayor of Kenner, Louisiana, recently had a change of heart concerning his week-old Nike ban, which would have prohibited booster clubs that operate out of Kenner athletic facilities from purchasing Nike products. After declaring the ban on September 5th, mayor Ben Zahn faced a public backlash as well as opposition from the ACLU and politicians from the city to the federal level:

Zahn’s directive essentially forbade spending of public money or booster club revenue on Nike apparel for Kenner’s nine youth playgrounds. After news of the order began spreading on social media over the weekend, he said Monday his intent was to prevent public money from being spent on what he called a political message by the sports apparel giant.

Am I the only one who wonders whether the most wrongheaded part of Zahn’s decree is that he thought he was responding to a political message by Nike? What exactly is political about Nike’s ad campaign?

Market Strategies and Political Posturing

It’s tempting to characterize even hiring Kaepernick for a high-profile ad campaign as an endorsement of his protest. However, the truth is that the corporation signed Kaepernick to its endorsement team in 2011, long before he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The ad itself never mentions police brutality or presents images of African-American marginalization. It’s just a slew of up-with-everybody affirmations, consumerist cheerleading without any cultural context whatsoever. Though it mentions refugees, there’s no acknowledgment of why there are refugees in the first place. It’s as if everybody can just “dream crazy,” and then all our social problems will be solved.

Kaepernick himself is presented in the ad with the words, Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. This language is so diabolically cautious it’s not saying anything at all. It doesn’t even imply that he did what he thought was right, or that he stood up against injustice. It seems Kaepernick is being celebrated merely for stirring up controversy and having personality traits that align with Nike’s corporate mission.

Exploiting the Marginalized

This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the corporation’s record of exploiting the African-American community and making comically half-hearted efforts to help out the people who essentially built Nike’s empire. The company has used black history month as an excuse to put out a special line of shoes, while their Ever Higher Fund, established to aid communities in need, has raised a paltry $3 million since its inception in 2014. (For the sake of comparison, the corporation’s net income just for 2017 was $4.2 billion, well over a thousand times that amount.)

Let’s not forget that this corporate behemoth keeps operating costs low by employing sweatshop labor in the Far East. If we’re talking about political statements, then buying Nike products is essentially endorsing exploitation. Their warm, fuzzy advertising rhetoric doesn’t translate into respect for the human rights for their employees:

Behind the Nike swoosh is the struggle of a million workers who stitch Nike shoes and gear. They are part of the 70 million-strong global garment industry workforce, fighting for better pay and conditions even as their jobs are automated. When we buy Nike’s seemingly rebellious liberalism, we buy into reformist politics that excludes their dream, which is to earn a living wage.

Hype and Hypocrisy

And not for nothing, but if political campaign spending is truly speech, then Nike is making its most significant political statement by giving over twice as much to the 2018 campaigns of Republicans than to those of Democrats.

It’s infuriating to think that the corporation is being lauded for its bravery and commitment to the rights of African-Americans, when it’s demonstrating absolutely nothing of the sort. The fact that they’re not just exploiting the African-American community but actively profiting from the intractability of racism in the USA is truly reprehensible.

What do you think? Is the Nike ad a political statement? Is the corporation doing anything positive for African-Americans?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anthrotheist

    The ad in question is selling something, and it isn’t shoes. The ad is selling the Nike brand as a personality; in particular it is a personality of perseverance, commitment, and ultimately achievement. I think it is profoundly necessary to be so conscious of what corporations are, that such messages become transparent and trite (and therefore entirely ineffective).

    Corporations are machines. They are not people, they don’t have personalities, they don’t have missions. They have corporate charters and internal policy documents, which create a legal framework for its operations. Corporations are like a car, or a computer. You could say that a car can take you places, but it’s more truthful to say that you use a car to go places; I can view an endless stream of uplifting and positive messages on my computer, but it doesn’t make my computer a better person. The corporation isn’t an entity creating good or bad, it is a mechanism through which existing social institutions (including racism and exploitation) are utilized in order for its beneficiaries (mostly executives and shareholders) to get where they are going (namely, more money). Even the ad in question is just a vapid regurgitation of American exceptionalism tied neatly together with meritocracy (the rags-to-riches American dream, reforged as an underdog-to-champion story).

    Don’t get me wrong, there are surely people who work for corporations that are moral individuals who want to utilize their position to do good. I imagine quite a few people at Nike are very proud of the statement that they believe they are making through this ad. I imagine that they also believe Nike to be an entity with a personality and purpose though.

  • Corporations are machines. They are not people, they don’t have personalities, they don’t have missions.

    I see your point. However, the people who run these entities do carry out activities such as selling, employing, manufacturing, and advertising not on their behalf but for the benefit of the entity itself. It’s quite appropriate to say that a corporation has a purpose or a mission, because companies don’t just assemble and incorporate at random.

  • Anthrotheist

    I think that I understand what you are saying. Perhaps a bit of clarification is in order. I am referring exclusively to publicly-traded for-profit corporate businesses; non-profit or privately owned incorporated organizations are a different matter. My main point is to understand the corporation as a mechanism by which groups of people accomplish a task. That task is singular, unchanging, and uncompromising: profitable returns. That is the only purpose of a publicly-traded for-profit corporation; the “mission” of the corporation is a statement of how it plans on going about fulfilling its purpose (e.g., “taking care of our customers, ensuring high quality goods and services [for our customers], etc.”). It boils down to, “What flavor of for-profit business do you want?”. And while some employees may work on behalf of their employer, the more common employment model today isn’t usually the traditional “relational” model (employer and employee taking care of each other’s needs in a relationship for decades or even for life) and more often is a “transactional” model (work to improve one’s CV/portfolio to move up to something better; high-quality work is more reflective of the employee’s ambitions than their care for their employer).

    Mind you, despite what it may appear, I am not against the act of making a profit. I do think that modern businesses follow a philosophy that is inherently immoral, though. Seeking profit has to be considered alongside the costs involved (the externalities), and focusing on the former while disregarding (and even actively avoiding) the latter is immoral. Society needs to be more proactive in ensuring that businesses are accountable to such moral failings — such morality isn’t present in the corporation’s essential nature — but that doesn’t seem to be the way that America is going right now.

  • Mind you, despite what it may appear, I am not against the act of making a profit. I do think that modern businesses follow a philosophy that is inherently immoral, though. Seeking profit has to be considered alongside the costs involved (the externalities), and focusing on the former while disregarding (and even actively avoiding) the latter is immoral. Society needs to be more proactive in ensuring that businesses are accountable to such moral failings — such morality isn’t present in the corporation’s essential nature — but that doesn’t seem to be the way that America is going right now.

    I agree. There needs to be an acknowledgment that increasing earnings-per-share isn’t the exclusive motivator of corporate activity (and believe me, that’s what we business-school noobs were told in the 80s). There’s a social and moral context in which business operates, and the economy is all wrapped up in ideas having to do with power, ownership, authority, and responsibility.

    We also need to acknowledge that capitalism is really good at accomplishing some things, like manufacturing and distributing widgets. But if we make profitability the sole relevant factor in any social or cultural phenomenon, we get the kind of culture we deserve. Capitalism simply isn’t equipped to create and maintain stable communities, nourish the arts, or provide social justice.

  • Major Major

    Nike also has a record of sexual harassment:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/business/nike-harassment.html

    Also, here is an interesting take on the ad from a creator I follow:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXy6bzKParM

  • Syzygy

    Ha! Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people…”. So there.
    I’ll believe that when Texas executes one.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    The whole situation baffles me in more ways than one.

    I’m curious to know when exactly the majority of sports fans first became aware of the kneeling, and when they figured out it was a problem. C’mon…the anthem is the time to carry your beer to your seat while dodging those knuckleheads who stop walking and face the flag! And isn’t kneeling a sign of respect and deference? (Oh. The internet says I should be outraged.)

    This language is so diabolically cautious it’s not saying anything at all.

    But motivational quotes work, amirite? It’s not like real accomplishment involves getting off your butt and …just doing it or anything.

    “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” (Homer Simpson)

    (I can’t resist postscripting Homer, “[E]specially when your excuse is fearing that you’ll be ignored!” I wonder what your detractor’s real reason was for reversing the Let’s Sack Shem From Patheos play?)

  • I agree, this controversy has been pretty surreal all along. But you’ve gotta hand it to the Prez and his white supremacist base: the more we fixate on things like the flag, Nike, Podunk mayors, and vapid ad slogans, the less we talk about the things that are ostensibly supposed to matter most here, like racism and police brutality. White America never runs out of ways to excuse itself from ever, ever confronting the reality of oppression and marginalization in our chrome-plated meritocracy.

    (I can’t resist postscripting Homer, “[E]specially when your excuse is fearing that you’ll be ignored!” I wonder what your detractor’s real reason was for reversing the Let’s Sack Shem From Patheos play?)

    Heh heh! I guess I don’t even deserve a big brouhaha. Just Another Happy Humanist seemed like she was real gung ho about the whole Sink Shem campaign. I guess neither she nor JSloan could be bothered to write a nasty email to my overlords here, because I never heard a peep about it from Dale or anyone else in the Patheos control tower. And I just received another check for fifty bucks for my toil. Hardly the comeuppance you’d hope for an anti-science troll, is it?

    Great to see you again! Hope all’s well.

  • tophilacticus

    I have had a similar hesitancy to celebrate Nike, as too often marketing departments destroy positive messages and movements by redirecting it to their profits. Within this system however, I am happy Kaepernick (and the issue of black bodies being killed) is getting the support of an entity that won’t be bullied so easily.

  • Guthrum

    I have gotten away from wearing clothing that is an advertisement for some corporation. I also stopped buying jerseys and shirts with pro team names or players.
    I do understand some of the advantages of these agreements that the schools have with the athletic merchandisers. But the commercialism is troubling.
    There is a small college up the road that has a football team. On a nice fall day last year I went to a game. Admission was $5, free parking, bring in your own drinks and snacks, and sit in the bleachers or on grassy areas. After the game some of the players stayed around, talking to the people and hanging around. Others went on to do some homework. There is a lesson in that experience somewhere.

  • Guthrum

    Years ago some economist said that it will come down to ten or so corporations controlling everything. Think about AT&T. I remember when they broke up that company. Now they are bigger than ever.