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From the Beatles to Colin Kaepernick: a Brief History of Nike’s ‘Wokewashing’

Why the sportswear corporation built a brand philosophy premised on personal transcendence and social justice

Sportswear giant Nike, in selecting racial justice activist and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for their 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign, have continued their tradition of courting controversy. With advertising agency Weiden+Kennedy, Nike’s Kaepernick ad is the latest in the corporation’s long-established branding strategy based on personal transcendence as a philosophy of everyday life, grounded in social movements. What were Nike gambling on in picking such a contentious figure, and does it amount to more than just a cynical exploitation of radical politics?

In Nike’s short film Dream Crazy (2018), Kaepernick advises: ‘believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything’. The two-minute ad, narrated by Kaepernick, compiles athletes (including Serena Williams and LeBron James) spanning diverse sources of marginalization – race, gender, being a refugee, religion, disability – in footage that shows them training hard, competing, triumphing. Kaepernick himself is best known as the American footballer who ‘took a knee’ during the national anthem, during his team’s preseason games in 2016. The action, intended as a protest against police brutality and racial injustice, prompted other footballers to do the same in solidarity, outraged many fans, and provoked US president Donald Trump into calling on club owners to sack any ‘son of a bitch’ who repeated the gesture. Kaepernick has been left without a contract in professional American football. Upon the campaign’s release, images emerged on social media of people burning Nike shoes and clothes in protest. While the sportswear company initially saw a fall in shares by 3%, research has shown a 31% surge in Nike’s online sales in the days following the Kaepernick ad launch.

Nike’s engagement with – and some critics would say, exploitation of – social issues has a long history. A 1995 ‘Just Do It’ ad featured the openly HIV-positive gay athlete Ric Munoz, while the ‘If You Let Me Play’ commercial, released the same year, tugged at the heartstrings to make the case for widening women’s participation in sport. Nike frequently fronts campaigns with iconic black athletes such as Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, with some ads not shying away from radical racial politics (Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 song ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ even found its way into a 1994 Nike commercial, featuring NBA players). Just as Dream Crazy encourages marginalized people to excel today, in 1989 the Paralympian Craig Blanchette encouraged viewers to ‘never quit’ in a Nike television spot. Nike campaigns use rebels too – most notably their 1993 advert ‘I Am Not a Role Model’ featuring basketball anti-hero Charles Barkley, who warns: ‘just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’

The Nike formula of associating with rebellious, radical and revolutionary issues emerged during the planning for a major campaign in 1987 designed to recover market share from Reebok whose successful aerobics shoes, largely sold to women exercisers, caught the patriarchal Nike unprepared. Nike, having previously eschewed television advertising, hired Wieden+Kennedy, a small Portland-based creative agency, to develop its first major TV campaign.

Nike, ‘If You Let Me Play’ poster, 1995. Courtesy: Nike

Nike, ‘If You Let Me Play’ poster, 1995. Courtesy: Nike

Nike, ‘If You Let Me Play’ poster, 1995. Courtesy: Nike

In pre-production, Nike anticipated a straightforward product-oriented campaign. But Wieden+Kennedy had another idea: structuring the ad around the Beatles’s 1968 song ‘Revolution’, suggesting a revolution around the way people exercised. The ad mixed images of Nike athletes like John McEnroe with ordinary people, sometimes clowning around, while participating in various sports. There are white and black people, men, women, and a toddler who looks like he is discovering what it is like to run for the first time. The Revolution ad aspired to speak to all – old, and very young, world class athletes and sports hobbyists – tying them together in an ideal of revolution through sports and exercise. In obtaining permission to use ‘Revolution’, the ad was the only time an original Beatles song was allowed in an advert.

The outcome was strikingly similar to Dream Crazy; the use of the Beatles’s ‘Revolution’ infuriated many consumers who understood the ad as betraying the song’s radical history (thus imbuing the song with a history it never had). Like now, consumers destroyed Nike paraphernalia and advised Nike that they would be boycotted evermore. Significant media commentary – mostly highly disapproving – piled up. One critic said that the ad was an example of ‘when rock idealism met cold-eyed greed’. And the Beatles’s Apple Records label sued Nike and Weiden+Kennedy in what was almost certainly a ‘nuisance lawsuit’ designed to garner public disapproval. And yet, like now, Nike profits soared, not just allowing them to recover their lost market share from Reebok, but also propelling them into the stratosphere where they have maintained their position as not just a blue-chip company, but also one of the most iconic brands of our age.

Nike Serena ad

Nike, ‘Athlete’ ad featuring Serena Williams, 2007. Courtesy: Nike

Nike, ‘Athlete’ ad featuring Serena Williams, 2007. Courtesy: Nike

The Revolution ad also introduced Nike as a brand who, on the one hand, spoke to social justice issues, while on the other drawing critical attention to its manipulation of poor consumers, exploitation of black culture, and sweatshop labour abuses. And so, then as now, media commentary assesses Nike’s intentions (with the role of the agency who made the ad forgotten): whether or not they are ‘wokewashing’ by cynically co-opting or appropriating radical discourse, or are genuinely committed to the social movements they invoke.

Critical media commentary usually excises the actual intentions of advertising producers – who are imagined to infuse commodities with ideology – and do so because they can only conceive an outsider-exploitative relationship with social movements. Yet in response to media outrage to Nike’s 1987 Revolution advert, Weiden+Kennedy executive, Kelley Stoutt, objected: ‘We’re baby boomers too. This is our music’. And given that both Dream Crazy and Revolution prompted major sales boosts, many consumers also apparently agree.

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid take a knee, while Antoine Bethea and Rashard Robinson raise their fist, during the anthem at the San Francisco 49ers’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, Levi Stadium, 2 October 2016, Santa Clara, California. Cour

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid take a knee, while Antoine Bethea and Rashard Robinson raise their fist, during the anthem at the San Francisco 49ers’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, Levi Stadium, 2 October 2016, Santa Clara, California. Courtesy: San Francisco 49ers, Getty Images; photograph: Michael Zagaris

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid take a knee, while Antoine Bethea and Rashard Robinson raise their fist, during the anthem at the San Francisco 49ers’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, Levi Stadium, 2 October 2016, Santa Clara, California. Courtesy: San Francisco 49ers, Getty Images; photograph: Michael Zagaris

If we are to understand advertising at a cultural political level, then we should consider the full context of the ad’s production – along with all varieties of viewers’s responses – rather than rely on tacit, but unsubtle, assumptions about who the advertisers are and what their intentions are. The world of branding and the world of cultural politics do not cleanly exist as discreet categories, in which one can appropriate or co-opt the other. We should remember that Nike, and other advertisers, are never far away from the cultural political terrain in which social movements occur. After all, when Colin Kaepernick originally ‘took a knee’ in 2016, he did so wearing Nike shoes.

Main image: Colin Kaepernick featured in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign poster, 2018. Courtesy: Colin Kaepernick and Nike

Alan Bradshaw is Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the co-author, with Linda Scott, of Advertising Revolution (Repeater Books, 2018).

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