Beware the commodification of Colin Kaepernick

Graphic by Levi Brown

Something that’s been missing from the debate about Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30th anniversary ad campaign is a simple question: what motivated Nike to choose Kaepernick? Was it because Nike believed in his message of accountability and racial equality? Perhaps it was because they wanted to give a platform to someone whose protest has been drowned out by hysterical, bad-faith engagement?

To answer, it’s worth looking at how corporations have historically used activism as a way to tie their company image to political symbolism. As early as 1992, Nike was promoting “girl empowerment” ads via a campaign called “If You Let Me Play.” More recently, companies like Dove have used women’s empowerment to create the perception that supporting their brand is equal to supporting a political cause. The same goes for Starbucks’ “fair trade” campaign, which claims to purchase “ethically sourced” coffee from farmers.

Critically, these campaigns have two things in common: they’re both uncontroversial and cleverly deceptive.

It was hardly brave for Nike to choose Kaepernick. They knew they’d get a boost from their young, left-leaning consumer base who are already more likely than not to support kneeling for the national anthem. Nike’s bet paid off — the ad has created over $100 million dollars in free media exposure and a 31 percent bump in online sales.

Even as conservatives attempt to spark a boycott movement by burning their shoes and attacking Colin Kaepernick, Nike’s hardly worried; their business decision depended on this type of outrage occurring. It plays into the hands of their narrative: Nike is making a sacrifice by standing up for justice and equality, which is literally the message of the Kaepernick ad.

The reality is that Nike sacrificed nothing. They are not standing up to any behemoth of injustice. Rather, they are a multibillion-dollar juggernaut with an affinity for commodifying activism. Perhaps this would be good if Nike was lending activists a platform to speak out against injustice or donating resources towards important issues deserving of attention.

Instead, Nike tricked rich, urban consumerists into thinking that a commercial that failed to utter a single word about racial inequality was a form of protest in and of itself. Just like the “If You Let Me Play” campaign, Nike has created the illusion of activism. Worst of all, they did so by profiting off the image of someone who made real, honest sacrifices while stripping them of their revolutionary content.

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More than the deceitfulness of using activism as a stock for their profit, Nike’s efforts are grossly hypocritical. Nike uses its power to fight lawsuits alleging gender discrimination and labor rights violations all the time. The company is well-known for fostering a company culture that marginalizes women and pays the people they employ in overseas sweatshops poverty wages.

It’s easy to say that giving a silenced activist exposure is net beneficial, regardless of Nike’s intentions. That’s precisely the attitude Nike is intending to create: indifference to subjugation and abuse. Corporations do not fuel rebellion and revolution; they water it down and resist it. For that reason, Colin Kaepernick won’t be given an ad to rail against the injustices of police brutality or systematic racism.

The danger of Nike’s pernicious strategy more broadly is that we become more tolerant of corporate immortality, lending excuses to them when they harm the environment, abuse their workers and perpetuate the very injustices they claim to be fighting against. Rather than heaping praise on corporations like Nike for their campaigns, we should approach them with great caution.

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