A few weeks ago, Nike announced that Colin Kaepernick would become the face of the company’s iconic 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. Overlaying a black and white image of the former NFL quarterback staring steadily into the camera are the words, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
From Nike, those words are the biggest irony of all.
At first glance, it may appear as if Nike is making a great show of solidarity in the face of vitriol directed towards Kaepernick and the brand itself from white supremacists online (and offline). However, to fully understand Nike’s campaign move, we must acknowledge that it is a multi-billion dollar corporation. The purpose of Nike has never been and will never be to offer true solidarity. Instead, its goal — like that of all corporations — is to accumulate wealth. And wealth, for a big brand like Nike, equals media exposure. According to Bloomberg, Kaepernick has already generated $43 million in media exposure for Nike since the announcement of the campaign.
Corporations that seek to ally themselves with radical politics should always be viewed with suspicion. As an example, Nike announced its second annual “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day” in May 2015. The announcement came in the midst of uprisings against police brutality in cities across the country, including Baltimore, Ferguson, and Cleveland. Unfortunately, it coincided with the exact date that Madison, Wisconsin officials announced that the police officer who killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson would not face criminal charges.
In stark contrast, the new face of Nike’s campaign is a figure known for speaking against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. How can a corporation go from backing law enforcement to suddenly dipping their toes into Black liberation dialogue?
The woke aesthetic has gained increasing popularity, causing brands that are often key players within the problem to pretend their merchandise is the solution.
Corporations like Nike have always tried to monetize the aesthetic of protest. In today’s bizarre state of late capitalism, corporate branding often takes it a step too far when they realize how lucrative social justice messaging really is. The woke aesthetic has gained increasing popularity, causing brands that are often key players within the problem to pretend their merchandise is the solution.
People love to believe in easy solutions to intractable problems. When we wear brands that advertise activism, we believe we’re taking a stand — against inequality, political oppression, and other deeply rooted social issues. Corporations only care about these issues as long as they further their bottom line.
Nike, for example, was battered by reports in the 1990s detailing labor violations in the global south. These problems are not going away. In 2016, an investigation at the factory complex Hansae Vietnam — of which Nike is a buyer — revealed concerning labor conditions. Earlier that same year, the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights group that monitors working conditions in factories overseas, reported that Nike refused to allow them inside the Hansae Vietnam factory after workers went on strike. Following student protests and increased pressure, Nike finally cooperated with the watchdog group and remediated the issues present at Hansae. Overall, Nike’s history with labor watchdogs and activists has been a long, sordid one. They continue to have their designs made in factories in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and Thailand. Many of these factories have questionable labor practices.
When Nike refuses to interrogate the role they play as a massive corporation, what is there to be said about sacrificing everything?
Former Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix once urged Nike to cut its production overseas and bring it to his state, stating, “there won’t be any transportation costs; we’re offering you competitive prison labor here.” Although the reasons for Nike continuing its reliance on what is ultimately sweatshop labor are more complex than cost, the fact remains that Nike contributes to the same devaluation of workers on a global scale.
This brings Nike’s intentions with their new campaign into direct question. When Nike refuses to interrogate the role they play as a massive corporation, what is there to be said about sacrificing everything?
If Nike indeed wants to tap into a market demanding drastic change, including the dismantling of capitalism, they must redistribute their immense wealth to those they’ve exploited. They must follow through on their own message of sacrifice. This means investing money into their workers and providing safe, well-paying jobs with full benefits. It means divesting from any links to police or brutal labor practices at home or abroad.
Nike’s campaign should not be confused as a company making progress. As Gil Scott Heron outlined in his famous 1970 piece, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” we cannot expect corporations — or their merchandise — to create any kind of lasting change in our economy and society.
Capitalism is not compatible with activism.
Overall, Nike’s current campaign relies on clever strategies whose ultimate message is that consumption of a brand is equal to activism. Capitalist entities, however, are structurally unable to blow the bugle for change. Instead, Nike’s campaign is a replication of what we have consistently seen in recent years: businesses attempting to commodify protest, reducing language and messages down to a marketable aesthetic, while failing to turn a critical eye on their own.
Capitalism is not compatible with activism. It is not compatible with fights to end police brutality or the prison industrial complex. As long as Nike continues exploiting activism to accumulate their own wealth, there is no true friendship or solidarity in their actions.
Consumers see through the rhetoric. Ultimately, we all know Nike is here to do the only thing that businesses ever intended: to generate profit, no matter the moral cost. Maybe there lies Nike’s sacrifice, the one thing they’ve given up in order to “have it all.”