Once, talking about politics was frowned upon—it wasn’t “polite conversation,” after all—but these days, it’s practically impossible to escape discussions about social issues. Whether you’re watching a movie or TV show, keeping up with the news or just browsing through social media, issues of race, representation, gender and sexuality are everywhere—even in advertisements.
Case in point: Nike. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the company recently launched an ad campaign that featured Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who’s now more known for taking a knee than calling plays. In 2017, after nearly two years of kneeling during pre-game national anthems to protest police brutality and violence against Black communities (and also reallllly annoying U.S. President Donald Trump), he opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers to become a free agent, which it seem he’s likely to remain. Since then, he pledged to donate $1 million to organizations that support oppressed communities and was also named GQ‘s “Citizen of the Year.”
But what made Nike’s decision to run this campaign so blatantly political was its preexisting partnership with the NFL, which *does not* support Kaepernick’s movement. In March, the company signed an eight-year deal as the football league’s main uniform and gear provider, yet still decided to shine light on Kaepernick’s political resistance—a massive gamble that evidently paid off with a 31% increase in sales following the new campaign.
This also isn’t the first time Nike has become political. Last year, it ran an ad featuring Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Serena Williams and Michael B. Jordan, which focused on racial inequality and translating the fairness we see in sport into our own communities. Similarly, some loved the ad, while others called out the global brand on their hypocrisy because of their use of low-paid factory workers and unethical production practices.
This year’s 30th anniversary campaign featured an image of Kaepernick with the words “Believe in something, Even if it means sacrificing everything” printed across his face, and was part of a series that also included Serena Williams. Within hours of its release, Kap’s ad had already gone viral and people were eager to share their thoughts and opinions. Those who supported Kaepernick and his protest shared their love for the campaign, while those who didn’t responded by burning their Nike gear.
The full anniversary video campaign was broadcasted during the NFL season opener last Thursday, which sparked even more questions about how Nike is taking a stance on this issue with their partnership with the NFL, and if brands in general should be getting involved in social justice movements at all.
From retail stores phasing out Ivanka Trump’s clothing line to Levi’s advocating for more gun control to Pepsi (very poorly) attempting to solve racism with its Kendall Jenner protest commercial, brands have seen the public’s interest in social justice grow substantially over the last few years and they’re eager to join in.
Here, seven Canadian women talk candidly about whether they take into account a company’s politics before committing to a purchase.
“If there’s a brand that is actively working against my community, I wouldn’t support them”
“As consumers, we have the ability to choose what we want to consume and what we don’t. So, if there’s a brand that is actively working against my community, I wouldn’t support them. There have been brands that I’ve stopped supporting because of racism. H&M is a big one—I just refuse to [shop there]. And more recently, because of ableism issues at Freshii, I’m also refusing to eat their food.
So, it’s great to see a large organization like Nike standing behind Black folk who’ve faced police brutality, especially because we’ve seen so many institutions denying the realities, whether it’s the justice system not prosecuting police officers or actual police institutions not holding their officers accountable.
But at the end of the day, we can’t forget that this is all a capitalist ploy. They’re really only taking these stances when it benefits them financially. We obviously know that they’re not going to take a large hit. We already know that they’re actually going to build a better [customer] base, especially among racialized folks and marginalized communities. However, the message still stands and it carries meaning. And it’s great to finally hear our narrative being accurately represented, because too often media misrepresents us.”
“I’m not more inclined or less inclined to buy more or less Nikes”
“I initially just saw the [Colin Kaepernick image], but when I watched the video, I thought it was really cool that Nike decided to take a stance. I haven’t really seen that happen much with other companies. I was curious to see if they had consulted the NFL before they took a stance on [this issue], because Nike makes NFL gear. I was more thinking about the back-end of everything, because I’m in the football community [Roh’s husband plays for the NFL].
I would definitely buy something if it aligned with the movement that I’m following. I eat generally healthy, and I support brands which are non-GMO—I love Chipotle, and because of their food policies, I continue to support them. But I’m hesitant to connect with political movements. I know Lush had their transgender rights campaign and I fully support that, but it didn’t make me buy their products any more than I usually did. With necessities I do. I try to make it a point to [vote with my dollar], but if it’s something that’s cosmetic like that, then I don’t really. That’s why with this Nike ad, yeah, shoes are necessary, but I’m not more inclined or less inclined to buy more or less Nikes.”
“For a while, I didn’t want anything to do with Nike because of their unethical factory practices”
“Nike took a huge risk—they put Kaepernick’s face everywhere—but I think it’s fantastic and a great way for them to show their support to a community that’s really in need. I also think that it’s giving somebody at a higher level, like the President of the United States, a message: ‘You cannot just bully us and get away with it.’ It’s Black activism at its best.
For a while, I didn’t want anything to do with Nike because of their unethical practices, especially because of child labour in Asian countries—I switched over to Under Armour. But I think through this campaign, they have gone into a completely different level to demonstrate their support for something larger than the company.
Lululemon was another brand that I used to buy a lot, but when I started seeing that [some of their clothes are made in] different countries that have lower than standard requirements for factory workers, that was one of the things that made me stop buying from them. It’s a social responsibility. I strongly believe in wealth redistribution. If you are paying the company in Vietnam a dollar and selling the same product for $150 and those factory workers in Vietnam are living way below the poverty line? There’s something wrong there.”
“It’s a smart business decision. They understand their brand and who buys it”
“The public relations professional in me recognizes this campaign as hugely beneficial for both Nike and Kaepernick. He gets a paycheque, while Nike earns social media reach, corporate social responsibility clout and perhaps greater support in a community that has a passionate sneaker culture. It’s win-win. It’s a smart business decision. They understand their brand and who buys it.
But they’re also supporting a very important social issue. As a woman of colour, I was very pleased to see such a positive and powerful campaign. I thought similarly of their recent campaign with Serena Williams and her outstanding tennis career. I was pleased to see a corporation making a powerful political statement in support of athletes, sports and willingness to draw attention to an issue that is greater than football.
I do my best to understand the social discourse surrounding brands and companies: I avoided purchasing products that were produced by Ivanka Trump; I would never set foot in a Chick-Fil-A. Locally speaking, if I’m aware of a business that supports or donates to causes that may be anti-women, anti-LGBTQ+, etc., they don’t get my business. It’s important for me to support businesses that support equality for all members of society.”
“I’d really like people to stop destroying things that other people can use”
“I was actually shocked [by the campaign], because it was a bold move for a company as big as Nike to—I was going to say ‘step into social justice issues,’ but that’s not accurate because they’ve been doing stuff like this for quite some time. I was surprised because it’s been two years since Colin Kaepernick started his protest, but I’m happily surprised.
It’s their right to use whatever they want as a marketing tool. I think they also calculate how much and how far they can go with the ad and the people they choose to be the face of their ads. They do a lot of work behind the scenes even though it is commercial and it is to make money and to make their brand more palatable to the masses, but at the same time, we’re still benefiting from them doing that.
Nike has the right to do what they’re doing and people have the right to protest, but I’d really like people to stop destroying things that other people can use. I see people burning a nice pair of Nikes or a nice shirt and I just think it makes no sense. You’re wasting valuable things! If you don’t want them, give them away. Don’t burn them!”
“They’re not taking a political stance, they’re taking a stand-for-something stance”
“I think Nike’s campaign is fantastic. They’re not coming out and saying, ‘Kneel for the flag,’ they’re coming out and saying, ‘Stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re going to risk some stuff.’ They’re promoting Kaepernick taking a stance and fighting for what he believes in, they’re not taking a stance on kneeling or police brutality.
My ex-boyfriend, who is the most important person in my life, other than my kids, is a police officer, so I’m very sensitive to anti-police propaganda, but I support Kaepernick because what he’s doing is peaceful and he’s putting himself out there. That’s what Nike’s supporting. They’re not taking a political stance, they’re taking a stand-for-something stance.
I fully support the Levi’s gun control ad, too, because that’s no longer a political issue, that’s a safety issue. It’s a very real thing. You can’t argue that mass shootings aren’t happening. They’re coming out and basically saying, ‘Something needs to be done. Nothing else is working. Let’s be anti-gun and anti-violence.’ Absolutely, take that stance. If you’re going to lose customers who are angry about guns, so be it. I support stuff like that, because when businesses take stances, people stop and pay attention. If it takes these businesses risking money and customers to try to make sure people are safe, so be it. It doesn’t hurt anybody.
[On the flip side], if a company’s political stance discriminates against people or segregates people, than yeah, I’m going to speak out against that company. When the [Saskatchewan] Roughriders hired Eric Tillman, who has been accused of groping a 16-year-old babysitter, I refused to support them. I stopped spending money on them. It’s something I do, so I don’t blame anyone if they decide not to support Nike.”
“The vast majority will see the media attention to this campaign and not be aware of the other [issues]”
“My reaction to Nike’s campaign is different than a typical consumer because this is what I study. [Pegoraro is a professor at Laurention University, and her research focuses on reactions to sports, brands and marketing through social media.] I’m very attuned to it and have been following the Colin Kaepernick situation for the part two years. My first initial response was, ‘Bravo Nike.’ I was pretty excited about it. But of course, because I’m a researcher, I had to step back and put a critical lens on my reaction and think more about the perspective of all consumers. Are they going to see this as as good move by Nike, is it going to change their view of the company positively or negatively? Obviously we saw some of that immediate [reaction] on social media and the news, both positive and negative.
I think in today’s world, consumers expect more from brands—I know I do. I don’t expect them just to make money off of me. I’d like them to be giving something back. Whether it’s about climate change and freeing the world from plastic, or issues we see happening in society in terms of social justice or racial injustice. I feel better as a consumer if I see a corporation is doing more than just trying to make my money and make a profit off me.
[But the Kaepernick campaign] does also allow a consumer who’s not fully aware of everything around Nike as a corporation to put them on a pedestal and say, ‘This is a positive company that I’d like to buy products from.’ We know that, besides their production processes, Nike has had several top executives accused and disciplined for inappropriate workplace harassment issues. Fully-informed consumers have to balance [pros and cons]. The vast majority will see the media attention to this campaign and not be aware of the other [issues].”