Nike just did it — and not in a small way.
The sports apparel giant recently launched a new, rousing ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The new slogan? “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The ad, true to Nike’s nomenclature, is a huge victory. But for whom? And more importantly, for what result?
While the ad is at first glance a beautiful tribute to the pursuit of justice that Kaepernick has sacrificed his career for, that first glance is ultimately deceiving. Nike is, at its core, a corporation. Strip it down to its essence, take away the fancy ad campaigns and the sponsorship events, and it has one goal in mind: profit.
As such, it is in the business of selling itself. In fiscal year 2017, Nike, Inc. made $34.4 billion. It is ranked No. 340 on Forbes’ Global 500 list. It is one of the most successful sports apparel businesses ever — turning shoes and shorts into steadily rising profits. How does it sustain such unfathomable amounts of wealth generation and profitability? Ad campaigns — ones that make you feel like Nike is more than just a company.
Kaepernick is perhaps best known for his outspoken protests, particularly kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games. That single act inspired myriad others like it — and, subsequently, harsh criticism from conservatives, including President Donald Trump, who have called it disrespectful and anti-American.
Suggested by his new rallying cry, the kneeling also meant that he sacrificed everything. Kaepernick hasn’t played an NFL down since the 2016 season — a sudden reversal of fate that, because of his skill and the NFL’s lack of viable quarterbacks, can only plausibly be due to his outspoken political action.
That led Kaepernick to file a grievance against the NFL owners for allegedly engaging in acts of collusion to ensure his extended unemployment. And there are many, including prominent sports figures and those on the political left, who support him in his cause — both on and off the field.
And with this ad, Nike is throwing its hat into the proverbial ring.
The two-minute ad is narrated by Kaepernick, who tells the stories of athletes who have overcome adversity and risen not just to the top of their sport, but to the top of the world. Their dreams are lofty, yet, as Kaepernick expounds, those are the only dreams worth chasing.
In the world of Nike’s new ad, LeBron James is not just the best basketball player on the planet — he’s “bigger than basketball.” At the end, Kaepernick asks those watching to not only ask if their dreams are crazy, but if they’re crazy enough.
In the world of advertising, it’s nothing short of a home run. It’s inspiring, thought-provoking, simple in its vision yet massive in its scope — in essence, it’s an ad that makes everyone want to be an athlete, particularly one who wears Nike.
And somehow, in just two short minutes, the company manages to align itself with social justice crusades that athletes such as James, Kaepernick and Serena Williams have been championing for years. It’s nothing short of beautiful — but as we gush about Nike’s virtuosity, there’s something more sinister lurking in the background.
No matter how much I want to love this ad (and I truly do), I know that it is just an ad. Its ultimate goal is to get people to buy Nike’s products, and as such, it in some way degrades and trivializes the work and sacrifice that Kaepernick and others have put into pursuing social justice. Kaepernick’s goals become means to Nike’s ends, not ends in themselves.
I am not saying that the ad is not important or relevant, because it undoubtedly is. It has recharged a conversation that we as a country need to be having — and it has provided Kaepernick with a massive soapbox on which to stand. But we must not forget that it’s also an ad, and its goal is not just to promote egalitarianism, but to also churn out business.
Nike is not a social justice organization. It is not a nonprofit organization. It is not a grassroots organizing group. Nike is not a person (contrary to whatever Citizens United would have you believe). Despite its best attempts, Nike is not Colin Kaepernick. Let’s not forget that.