Getting political like crazy

Friday 21 September 2018 by George Ryder

Wherever you stand on the Colin Kaepernick debate, you have to admit Nike scored a touchdown with its latest ad. All the major news outlets are talking about it, athletes such as Serena Williams have praised it, and it has cemented Nike’s position as the most culturally relevant sports brand.

But what does it all mean? Is it a cynical marketing move, a brave cultural statement, or the martyrdom of a young quarterback?

My opinion is that it’s a mix of all three – but above all it’s an example of adroit advertising. Nike spotted a movement popular with its own athletes and took a calculated risk (the Pepsi debacle still fresh in everyone’s minds) – and it paid off. Sure, Nike has taken its fair share of flack with some commentators pointing out the pay and conditions of its South East Asian factories. But ultimately, middle-aged conservatives aren’t its target market.

The line that runs across Kaepernick’s face is “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Ask yourself the question: would Nike itself sacrifice everything – i.e. its profits – in defence of its values? Could you see it withdrawing its products in Russia in protest against the persecution of the LGBT community? Or making a transgender athlete the face of a campaign in the Middle East? Not likely. Such actions would jeopardise its revenue and get some of its employees jail time for subversion.

The truth is that Nike adapts its morals to the location it sells in. It’s what most brands do; adapt to the popular consensus of the time. For example, this advert was considered perfectly acceptable in 1969. By today’s standards, not only would it fail from both a health and gender equality standpoint, but it would also likely get its creators an impromptu meeting with their HR department.

Athletes making a political statement can exact a heavy toll. Muhammad Ali lost three years of his career and had a prison sentence hanging over his head when he refused the draft for the Vietnam War. Johan Cruyff gave up his chance of World Cup glory in 1978 to protest at the thousands of people tortured and murdered by the Argentine fascist dictatorship. However, both were stellar sportsmen who went on to achieve great things. That won’t be the case for Kaepernick; he’s just a regular quarterback who in all likelihood won’t play again. When this furore passes, he’ll be but a memory (and a meme), and Nike will move onto the next hottest sports property.

So, should a brand ever get political? You can argue that Nike had its hand pushed with this one; that it couldn’t sit on the fence on a topic so close to home. Since Trump’s election, there has certainly been a propensity for brands to get political. Last year’s Super Bowl was full of ads with political overtones, such as the spots for 84 Lumber and Budweiser. It raises a further question: what role do brands have to play in the morality of a nation? Are they a cultural barometer? Should we even care what a timber or beer company has to say about US domestic policy?

Personally, I believe the world of advertising should be like the dinner table: politics and religion are best left out it. And yet, no brand exists in a vacuum. Real-world events are bound to influence the conversation. But as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics; public sentiment can shift over time and even benign strategic decisions can come back to haunt a business. If a brand wants to jump onto a political bandwagon, it should be prepared to defend its stance – and steel itself for the backlash.


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  • Politics