Nike dropped a two minute ad for the 30th Anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign online on September 3. The video features images of inspiration — a hijab-wearing female boxer, wheelchair-bound athletes, disabled wrestlers. But it’s the five seconds featuring former NFL quarterback and “Take a Knee” originator Colin Kaepernick at the end of the video that set the Internet ablaze.
Responses to Nike’s ad were dramatic and explosive, with the anti-kneel contingent conveying their anger by burning Nike apparel, and the pro-protest segment Tweet-storming their support for Nike and Kaepernick. Nike’s support of Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police brutality should be celebrated by and inspiring other iconic brands to do the same.
Nike’s usage of inspirational figures breaking the status quo is not an unprecedented move. Nike featured an HIV-positive, gay athlete in a “Just Do It” ad in 1995, Middle Eastern women in hijabs in 2017, and The Beatles’ “Revolution” and its lyrics “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know / We all want to change the world” in a 1987 commercial.
These ads promoted change for good, diversity, and acceptance, so making Kaepernick the focal point of its updated “Just Do It” campaign is nothing new for a company whose mission statement reads: “making a positive impact in communities where we live and work” and “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Featuring Kaepernick, whose kneeling was to protest police brutality and the oppression of people of color throughout America, is a bold social declaration that Nike has pulled off time and time again.
Reactions to Nike’s use of Kaepernick in the ad range from the reserved (even President Trump stated that Nike has the right to freedom of speech), to the economically wasteful (multiple videos of angry Twitter users burning their Nike apparel in protest). Fox News’s Tucker Carlson lambasted Nike on Sept. 4, stating that Nike is member of the “powerful ruling class” of America and warning that “if your ruling class decides to attack the very system that made their lives possible — everything falls apart.” Over the course of the week, two competing hashtags, #JustBurnIt and #ImWithKap, trended on Twitter with 16.7k and 33.1k tweets over the course of a week, respectively.
Some critics of the Nike ad were quick to point out that Nike enjoyed $43 million in positive media exposure and their sales increased 31 percent, according to Apex Marketing Group, and that this meant Nike was using Kaepernick as nothing more than a marketing ploy.
But let’s face it: Nike is first and foremost a business, just as the NFL is (the NFL has received at least $6.8 million from the Department of Defense, according to a financial report released by the late Senator McCain), and it should go without saying that all decisions made involve a desire for profit.
The NFL has only been having players stand on the field during the anthem since 2009, and the contracts that the military signed alongside various professional teams never mandated that players stand during the anthem. Much of the current-day patriotism that the NFL invokes had their beginnings in a signed contract with the military. What matters more are the values that Nike chooses to put forth and the message they wish to convey. In this case, their solidarity with Kaepernick’s cause carries an inherently American message: the right to peacefully protest.
Kaepernick’s years-long disagreement with the NFL (the elite athlete is still being unfairly and inexplicably blackballed by the league) should naturally serve as a perfect way for Nike to make a statement. Yes, the decision was probably made by a roomful of marketers and executives who saw a way to make Nike relevant in social justice discourse again: politics. But this doesn’t excuse the fact that Nike, by including Kaepernick, is promoting a positive and necessary social message about the freedom to protest.
Two years ago, Kaepernick knelt, not to disrespect the flag or the military or America, but to peacefully protest for a cause he believed in. Although he may have lost his 49ers career and his reputation within the NFL, his nine words emblazoned over a gray-scaled image of his face that blew up the Internet say it all: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.