In 2006, Chevrolet flooded the television advertising market with a campaign for its Silverado truck that featured a smorgasbord of Americana set to milquetoast rocker John Mellencamp singing about the nation “from the east coast to the west coast.” The ad included images from key moments in the country’s history, footage of quintessentially American fads, heroes doing heroic things.
Subtle as a sledgehammer, the automaker interspersed Chevy trucks throughout the minute-long piece. The tagline: “This is our country. This is our truck.”
Naturally, athletes popped up on the screen during the segment, but you didn’t see Mickey Mantle or Joe Namath or Michael Jordan. Instead, Chevy cut in a scene of iconic heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in the ring. I remember being struck by the irony of hawking pickups to white America using Ali, whose association with the Nation of Islam and refusal of induction into military service during the Vietnam War helped him attract the disdain of that same target demographic during the prime of his career.
Of course, public opinion of Ali had softened considerably 25 years after his final professional fight. As Parkinson’s Disease was ravaging his body and mind, Ali’s legacy became enveloped in a gauzy haze that seemingly conflated his outspokenness on issues of social justice with his bravado inside and outside of the boxing ring. It also helped that the passage of time altered perceptions of the civil rights movement and Vietnam.
Nike’s new promotional campaign with Colin Kaepernick is different. Obviously, Kaepernick is one of the faces of its brand, not just a blip like Ali was in a larger campaign. More importantly, though, Nike is backing Kaepernick at the same time we’re watching the ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback create his legacy as an activist, not with the benefit of hindsight.
Avoiding controversy has long been one of the overriding principles of mass marketing. The Swoosh’s most prominent pitchmen, Jordan and Tiger Woods, dominated their sports in their primes and took care to cultivate public personas with broad-based appeal.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, is an unemployed football player whose most notable career accomplishment has been playing for a team that almost won a Super Bowl. His protest evolved into a flashpoint in the country’s political discourse, and he hasn’t done anything to tamp down the ongoing firestorm around him. That is his claim to fame, and conservative politicians clearly believe bashing Kaepernick resonates with their core constituency.
We’re a long way from “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Don’t get it twisted: The goal here is still to get us to buy shoes. The apparel company’s deal with Kaepernick isn’t about corporate altruism, people over profits or any other progressive catchphrases.
Nike’s executives have to answer to stockholders. They didn’t come to this decision by accident. They’re making a highly informed wager that if casting the company’s lot with Kaepernick means you’re buying Under Armor, more than enough people who support him will be in line at the next shoe release to make that up – and then some.
But Nike also appears to be betting that the public will view Kaepernick’s activism more favorably 10, 20 and 30 years from now. Just as Ali and other civil rights activists were reviled in the 1960s, history suggests that we are far more likely to celebrate Kaepernick and the current protest movement in the long run.
It’s also hard to ignore the ongoing shifts in the demographics of the U.S. population. We live in a country that is diversifying both ethnically and racially. Increasingly, future generations of Americans will be the products of intermarriage between people of different races, which means even foundational concepts behind racial identities will continue to muddle.
Does that sound like a country that will be more sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause, or less?
Nike has now written Kaepernick into its own corporate history. The company can boast in the future that it supported him while he challenged the most powerful entity in sports and defied a president.
Yes, the Kaepernick-Nike marriage is pure, unadulterated capitalism profiting off of a cause. I can’t blame anyone who feels squeamish about that or who worries about how corporations could manipulate the message. Yet, when a company as powerful as Nike is involved, it should tell teams, athletes and leagues that the “sticking to sports” playbook probably needs an update.