Nike Will Not Head A Branded Revolution

Vanessa Taylor
Written by Vanessa Taylor


Image: ad for Nike’s new campaign. Close up shot of Kaepernick with Nike’s slogan at the bottom of frame.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”.

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, the bold words invoked an image of ultimate sacrifice, of believing in something to the point of giving up all. But, 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, particularly with the vitriol directed towards Kaepernick and the brand itself from white supremacists online. However, to fully understand Nike’s campaign move means acknowledging that Nike is a multi-billion dollar corporation. The purpose of Nike has never been and will never be to offer true solidarity, but instead to accumulate wealth by any means. The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad press” holds true especially now. According to Bloomberg, Kaepernick has already generated $43 million in media exposurefor Nike since the announcement of their new campaign.

Corporations running for their say in any type of radical politics is already suspicious. Nike’s campaign is cast into further suspicious light when remembering that the company 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. It unfortunately coincideded with the exact date that Madison, Wisconsin officials announced the police officer who killed 19-year-old Tony Robinson would not face criminal charges.

Image: ad from Nike’s 2015 “Law Enforcement Appreciation Day”

What has emerged as a woke aesthetic has gained increasing popularity, causing brands that are often key players within the problem to pretend that their merchandise is the solution.

In stark contrast, the new face of Nike’s campaign is a figure known for speaking against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. It begs the question: how can a corporation go from backing law enforcement to suddenly dipping their toes into Black liberation dialogue?

This trend of corporations like Nike dabbling in protest as an aesthetic is not new. In the bizarre stage of late capitalism that society exists in, we contend with corporate branding taken to new levels as companies realize how lucrative social justice messaging is. What has emerged as a woke aesthetic has gained increasing popularity, causing brands that are often key players within the problem to pretend that their merchandise is the solution.

People love to wear brands that make them feel as if they are taking an active role in standing up for something. By tying their merchandise into this new aesthetic, companies are able to tap into that market. In addition, they are able to later pretend that they had a hand in changing history. With this campaign, Nike can pat itself on the back and assume that they had a role in speaking out against the prison industrial complex and labor abuse within it. Yet, Nike was battered by reports in the 1990s detailing labor violations in the global south, and those problems have not gone away.

When Nike refuses to interrogate the role they play as a massive corporation, what is there to be said about sacrificing everything?

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, and they continue to have their designs made in factories in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and Thailand.

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 that is also seen within prisons. In terms of cheap labor, incarcerated and factory workers are often caught together in the same trap, entangled in webs that reduce human beings to labor that doesn’t even begin to register for compensation.

This all 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 dip into a market demanding drastic change, including the dismantling of capitalism, then they need to redistribute their wealth to those they’ve exploited and follow through on their own message of sacrifice. That means investing money into their workers, by providing well-paying, safe 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”, the revolution will not come from the mouths of corporations or from their merchandise. Overall, Nike’s campaign relies on clever strategies whose ultimate message is that consumption of a brand is equal to activism, but as a capitalist entity it cannot blow the bugle to lead the charge 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.

But, 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. Without true, systemic change, Nike’s campaign is a clear warning of how corporations are attempting to place themselves into a dialogue where they do not belong. Ultimately, 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 have given up in order to have it all.

This article was published on Medium. It is reposted here with the permission of the author, Vanessa Taylor.