All You Want Is Nikes

Why Nike’s latest campaign is the future of marketing and advertising (for better and maybe for worse).

We’ve now hit the point that the uproar and backlash—along with the counter-backlash and the counter-counter-backlash—from Nike’s new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick are seemingly distant memories. The flow of information and the cycles of outrage are so swift these days that it’s hard for anything to retain its cultural relevancy for more than a few days.

A soundtrack for your reading enjoyment.

Maybe that’s why I want to talk about the campaign right now, months after all the biggest waves have calmed. Because, for a number of reasons, I’m still thinking about it. I’m trying to understand the strategy. I’m working through the nuances of the second and third phases of the campaign. I’m dissecting the taglines and calls to action while trying to figure out if capitalism and social activism can ever really fit together. Can you make billions of dollars selling sneakers and t-shirts but also speak up in defense of the underserved and underrepresented? Can you turn protest into shareholder value? And, if you can, how should we feel about that?

What really lies at the heart of my wrestle with this campaign is that I personally love the work. It’s smart. It’s bold. It’s well-written. The rallying couplet is classic Nike but also a clever side-step and giant leap forward: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.” I’m also a big fan of their controversial stance. Putting Kaepernick at the center of the campaign is daring. And I believe that brands need to be daring. I can’t imagine the conversations between the team at W+K and the leaders at Nike. With Adidas gaining ground over the last couple years, I’m sure there were loud voices who argued against intentionally alienating (or even blatantly ousting) a large customer segment. They all deserve credit for doing something risky. The world needs more brands and more leaders who are willing to take those kinds of risks.

At the same time, I’m conflicted. Not about the work. The follow-ups with Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, Mo Salah, Lebron James, Paul Rodriguez, the US Women’s soccer team, Shaquem Griffin and especially the Justin Gallegos story (maybe the best piece of work in the entire series) are great extensions of the original Dream Crazy anthem. They pick controversial and strong subjects—the greatest tennis player of all time who happens to be a woman of color, an African middle-distance champion who has been subjected to gender testing and rampant negative speculation, the world’s greatest distance runner who is also an immigrant and a refugee affected by the current US president’s unconstitutional travel bans, a collegiate runner who is now the first athlete with cerebral palsy signed to Nike’s roster. These stories are important. They’re worth telling.

However, I’m conflicted about the result of all this great work. I’ll try to explain…

First, I’m afraid of all the other brands who are going to try something like this without having done the hard work over the last 30–40 years to establish the equity required to pull it off. I don’t want to see Uber launching a campaign to celebrate heroes of the civil rights movement. Their current “we promise we’re not the worst!” campaigns are bad enough. Most brands can’t and shouldn’t adopt this strategy. But that’s not the way the industry works. There will be more. And most of them will be terrible. On the whole, they’ll drag us backward instead of pushing us forward. That’s not Nike’s fault. They shouldn’t have to worry about the potentially negative impact of the copycat social justice campaigns that will follow in their wake. But it’s a real thing, especially with Nike’s sales and stock soaring in the months after the campaign launch. And I’m already uneasy about it.

Second, I’m not sure if it’s good if the shoes we wear are a political statement. (Aside: There’s so much nuance to my feelings on this point and I hope I can navigate the argument properly… so stay with me, please.) Brands have always had a sub-meaning. That’s why they exist and that’s why we love things with big logos. A pair of shoes has always been able to communicate something about the person who wears them—wealth, style, practicality, dad-status, insider-ness, poverty, cluelessness, etc. But those messages have typically been about personal social status, a representation of conspicuous consumption or maybe the most garish aspects of capitalism.

With this campaign, Nike has done something else. There is now a stake in the ground. If you buy a pair of Nikes, you support progressive civil rights. You support gender fluidity. You support racial equality and (more importantly) understand that we’re nowhere close to getting there. You support immigrants and refugees. You support people with different abilities or chronic conditions who may be devastated by the healthcare policies of one specific political party.

Because I find myself (generally) on that end of the political spectrum, I’m cool with this. In August and September (back to school!), I bought a dozen pairs of Nikes for myself and my family (look at all those cool shoes! aren’t we a cool family?! not like all those other regular families?!). And I felt great about supporting those messages, those platforms, those humans.

But here’s my ultimate question:

With so many points of division in the world, is it good for us—as a community, as a society, as neighbors—to add shoes to the list?

Maybe I’m naive, but I want shoes to be something that we can all still agree on. I don’t want someone to see a swoosh on my foot and immediately decide that they hate me. And I really don’t want to see a blacked out swoosh on someone else’s foot and then decide that I never want to talk to them.

I get that this is bordering on “what we really need is more love and kindness!”—and I know that love and kindness aren’t always the answer. Sometimes, protest and decisive action are what we need most. It’s possible that I’m just an idealist, wanting to believe that there are still more things that unite us than divide us. I want to believe that cheering for the same basketball team or eating at the same greasy burger joint can help us see each other a little better. I might even believe that seeing someone else wear a rad pair of ACG throwbacks could help ease the tension when I find out they voted a particular way or that they favor wide-open gun access.

I’m grappling with this. It’s possible I’m the only one still thinking about it. But I love Nike. I love the campaign. I also love lots of people who probably disagree. Maybe they’ll see how much money I spent on Nikes and they’ll stop talking to me. But I really really hope not. I hope we can figure it out.

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