The publicity generated by Nike’s Kaepernick ad trumps the boycotts — and puts the brand on the right side of history, experts say.
Only Nike could just do this.
The $32 billion sportswear brand that outfits the National Football League has polarized shoppers — and put its own brand partner in a tight spot — by making former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. It even aired its first video spot “Dream Crazy,” which features a Kaepernick voiceover, during the season-opening Eagles-Falcons game on Thursday night — where it was surprisingly well-received, according to Ace Metrix, which measures the impact of video advertising.
A quick replay: The 30-year-old became one of sports’ most controversial figures in 2016 for protesting racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem before games. He’s filed a grievance against the NFL, claiming that the league and its 32 teams have conspired to keep him from being drafted to play ever since. So Nike’s new spot is a game-changer because it appears to side with the player over the $14 billion football organization — and just as the new football season kicks off on Thursday.
— Nike (@Nike) September 5, 2018
Yet despite social media backlash earlier this week that saw some angry customers burning and ripping their Nike gear, Ace Metrix found that only 13% of surveyed viewers said that they were less likely to buy Nike products after viewing the ad. And that dropped to just 10% of millennials and 6% of Gen-Zers. In fact, 56% of general population viewers said that they were more likely to purchase Nike after seeing the spot.
“These results show once again that oftentimes, social media backlash can be amplified by media attention while representing only a small minority of haters,” wrote Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll. “Most objections to such a polarizing figure as Kaepernick were tempered by the very strong likeability of that message across age, gender and ethnicity.”
Even the Miss America pageant addressed the issue during a preliminary round on Thursday night, with the judges asking Miss Virginia Emili McPhail what advice she would give NFL players on whether to kneel or stand during the national anthem. She said that taking a knee is, “a right you have,” adding, “but it’s also not about kneeling; it is absolutely about police brutality.” She has advanced to the next round, and told reporters that she’s not worried about her answer costing her the crown because, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but I stood up for what I believed was right.”
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018
As did Nike, some analysts and activists say. “What Nike did here, by publicly embracing and supporting Colin Kaepernick the same week that the NFL regular season begins, was a powerful message,” Shaun King, journalist and Black Lives Matter organizer, told Moneyish, noting it was also “a huge risk on Nike’s part” considering its business relationship with the NFL. (While the financial details of Nike’s NFL deal are unknown, CNN says that Nike’s similar eight-year deal with the NBA is supposedly $1 billion.)
Kaepernick tweeted his Nike ad on Labor Day: a black and white portrait of his face with the caption, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt.”
“This comes just a week after it was decided that Colin’s case against the NFL will move forward,” King added. “Ultimately, it shows they (Nike) support Colin during a very difficult time. Nike has proven that they understand the time we are in well. Their athletes don’t just expect checks; they need support when they are under attack.”
Neither the NFL nor Nike responded to Moneyish requests for comment on Tuesday, although Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, released a statement in the late afternoon reading, “The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”
Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand for North America, told ESPN that, “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” When the New York Times asked if Nike had run the Kaepernick campaign by the NFL, spokeswoman Sandra Carreon-John responded, “Nike has a longstanding relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current NFL players and its marks. Colin is not currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”
Nike had signed Kaepernick in 2011, Yahoo Sports reported, but reportedly decided to renew his contract (for an undetermined amount) and run him in the “Just Do It” anniversary campaign after rivals like Puma and Adidas started courting him this spring. “Even though he isn’t playing, he’s still connecting with a lot of people,” a shoe industry exec told Yahoo. “He’s exponentially more popular, and in some cases unpopular, than he ever was in the NFL.”
Yes, Kaepernick is as polarizing as ever. After his new ad dropped, Nike’s shares dropped 3.2% on Tuesday, and some sports fans, including country singer John Rich, tweeted pictures of themselves burning their Nike sneakers or cutting the brand’s signature Swoosh logo off of their socks in protest. President Donald Trump told The Daily Caller that “I think it’s a terrible message.” But he added, “In another way, it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do, but I personally am on a different side of it.”
— John Rich (@johnrich) September 3, 2018
First the @NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then @Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive? pic.twitter.com/4CVQdTHUH4
— Sean Clancy (@sclancy79) September 3, 2018
But industry experts say this risk could pay off in the long run. Bloomberg and Apex Marketing Group also reported on Tuesday that Nike received more than $43 million worth of media exposure in the less than 24 hours after the ad posted. ESPN’s Darren Rovell tweeted that the one million tweets about Kaepernick’s new spot kept Nike in the top trending Twitter spot for almost seven hours on Labor Day. And the post received retweets in support from fellow Nike athlete Serena Williams, director Ava DuVernay and former CIA director John O. Brennan.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) September 3, 2018
Colin Kaepernick drew our collective attention to the problem of continued racial injustice in America. He did so not to disrespect our flag but to give meaning to the words of the preamble of our Constitution—“in order to form a more perfect union.” Well done, Colin, well done. https://t.co/4ALyUxLjM5
— John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) September 4, 2018
And this is just Nike’s latest move in support of an athlete over a major sports organization. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) banned Serena Williams from wearing a Nike bodysuit during the French Open last month, which was a compression garment designed to help prevent the blood clots that nearly killed her, because it went “too far.” Nike responded by tweeting a snap of the 23-time Grand Slam champion wearing the garment with the caption, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
Chuck Welch, founder of the cultural strategy consultancy Rupture Studio, told Moneyish that Nike has a history of standing behind controversial athletes, including rebellious long-haired runner Steve Prefontaine, the first athlete to sign with the Nike company in 1974. And who could forget its 1993 Charles Barkley “I am not a role model” commercial, where the NBA star said, “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
“It’s in their founding DNA from Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight to stand up for the athlete and issues they care about,” said Welch. “They understand the Black athlete and Black culture that fuels their business globally, and decided to reach back and support it through Kap. They understand that Kap is bigger than an individual. He’s a symbol of something bigger socially that we’ve been grappling with since the founding of this country.”
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) September 4, 2018
It’s worth noting that Nike has grappled with its own social equality and human rights issues. Eleven high-profile executives and senior managers have stepped since the New York Times reported this spring that female workers in the company’s Oregon headquarters were being sexual harassed, marginalized in meetings and passed over for promotions. And the brand faced a new wave of sweatshop accusations in Vietnam and Honduras last summer, even after its spent the past two decades upgrading its factory practices and bringing more transparency to its overseas production after it was called out for running sweatshops in the 90s.
Having interviewed Nike workers, I would hope the company applies this beautiful slogan and Kaepernick’s example to its labor practices. https://t.co/xlSkCI4UiC
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) September 4, 2018
But by siding with athletes like Kaepernick and Williams, even as the NFL fumbles with a national anthem policy ahead of this next season, shows that Nike is focused on winning the long game, even as it takes some losses for now.
“We are living in an important cultural moment, and if brands choose to speak to that, they will either end up on the right side of history or the wrong side,” Sakita Holley, public relations strategist and CEO of House of Success PR, told Moneyish. “Yes, Nike may alienate some of their customers and potentially piss off brand partners such as the NFL, but ultimately this moment will pass. And they’ll gain equity and respect from their core consumers, the athletes themselves and the communities they come from who support them or their cause.”
This article was originally published on Sept. 5, 2018, and has been updated since the “Dream Crazy” spot aired.
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