Twitter was on fire (quite literally) since Nike released its latest ad last weekend. The media frenzy and opposing reactions call for us to dig into the hard questions of activism, advertising, and our complex role as recipients of this message.
If you know the context, go on and skip to the next section!
In celebration of the 30th anniversary of their 'Just do it' campaign, Nike has chosen Colin Kaepernick as their new face, alongside Serena Williams, Odell Beckham Jr. and LeBron James. Dissenters lit up Twitter, trending the #BurnYourNikes hashtag with videos of themselves throwing their Nike products into fires and cutting the logos off their Nike socks (in a laughably haphazard way), feeling betrayed by Nike as an American.
Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49er player, was thrown off the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racism and police brutality, causing divided reactions among Americans. In a moment of bruised ego, Trump tweeted:
Trump also said any NFL player who does the same is "a son of a bitch" who should be removed from the field.
But, isn't it more American to be kneeling for your fellow people than to be serving blind patriotism to a concept of a nation whose dominant values aren't aligned with yours anymore? In the words of Dave Chapelle, "[I]f you don’t understand that when a football player takes a knee during the national anthem, he’s actually standing up for me, then you might not want to fuck with me anymore."
Trump, of course, dismissed the ad as "a terrible message."
Most recently, Kaepernick has filed a lawsuit against the NFL for allegedly colluding to keep him off the league.
WHY ARE PEOPLE BURNING THEIR NIKES?
The #BurnYourNikes movement was perpetrated by Americans feeling that Nike, an American brand, is endorsing someone who disrespected America.
Other Twitter users were quick to identify the stupidity of burning already bought Nike products because it doesn't affect Nike's bottomline and provides free advertising for the brand. Others voiced how wasteful this act was and that dissenters should've given their shoes to the homeless instead. Whether the reception was positive or negative, Nike managed to place itself in the centre of a national debate within minutes of the ad's release.
Amidst the whirlwind on social media, this campaign isn't that surprising, considering Nike's track record of using rebellion as a marketing tactic. Major throwback to Michael Jordan wearing red/black (Chicago Bulls colour way) Air Jordan 1s (there's some debate over whether it was the actual 'banned' Air Jordan 1s or Nike Air Ship) and Nike paying the fine for each time he wore them on the court because it was against uniform rules. Later Nike would release their 'banned' campaign based on this story... so that everyone could take part in this 'rebellion'.
The burning is reminiscent of Disco Demolition Night (1979) when rock music fans in Chicago, Illinois, exploded disco vinyls in a fire in a baseball stadium of 50,000 people. Led by Steve Dahl, this anti-disco movement was provoked because of the popularity of disco music, and the rejection of it was representative of a larger act of racism and homophobia. What's different today is that with the democratised medium of social media, the tools of protest can be in the confines of your home, and you can still be heard. Disturbingly though, it isn't a type of music but a fashion brand that people are taking to represent their values.
SPORTSWEAR GOES POLITICAL
This entire ordeal begs the questions: What does 'Americanness' mean in today's politically volatile climate? How does Nike's new stance shift its image as an 'American' brand? And how did Nike come to occupy this status of being 'American' when it started as a reseller of Japanese-made shoes and currently manufactures in 554 factories located in 42 countries?
In a post 9/11 country, nay, world, plagued by trauma, brutality, constant political unrest, walls being built, Twitter wars and actual wars, swept over with a post-postmodern overtone, people are scrambling for something to believe in. And brands know that. In a recent article, Business of Fashion discussed how street wear brands like Supreme garner customer loyalty through the building of communities or tribes. Supreme, starting from its skateboarding community roots, "drives fans into a frenzy not simply because of its design aesthetic or savvy product releases, but because it means something more than just looking cool." The article also mentioned how Gucci, too, has managed this effect through its AW2018 campaign and its captions about "Gucci's tribe of outsiders".
"As more consumers come to expect brands to reflect their moral and political values, a brand that takes a side on a controversial issue can strengthen its bond with a consumer segment, making them willing to buy more or to buy at a higher price," said Market Insider on Nike's growth after it's initial 3% drop upon the ad's release.
Nike's choice has clearly been calculated.
This political overtness is nothing new as fashion has been used to death as a means of stating your beliefs. Just one example is Katherine Hamnett's T-shirts with "58% don't want Pershing" (referencing the deployment of the Pershing II missile) slapped across them. In 1983, a photo of her wearing that tee and meeting Margaret Thatcher went viral. In an interview with The Gentlewoman this year, Hamnett said, "Wear it and they could be read from 200 yards. Two or three words in people's brains, churning over."
A more recent example is Chanel's staging of a feminist protest for their SS2015 runway show. However, what happens when it isn't just a single item of clothing that is saturated with political meaning but an entire brand that sells 25 shoes per second? When a simple swoosh logo takes the place of words, will wearing Nike products become as controversial as the single 'Make America Great Again' hats?
It's hard to say, but one thing's for sure - the maxim that 'you are what you wear' is becoming truer and truer as brands take a political stance, whether out of pressure from their customers, as a marketing strategy, or out of sincere conviction. Making a choice as a fashion consumer is becoming more intertwined with your ethical beliefs, and this phenomena is also forcing everyone to be less politically neutral. It pays to be politically unaware; choose a stand or suffer the stares caused by your ignorant T-shirt.
SLOGANISM WITHOUT ACTIVISM?
Brands are bursting (or stumbling, for some) into the political conversation. It's a double-edged sword as Dave Zirin has pointed out. While it's great that during his NFL lay-off, Kaepernick has this endorsement that legitimises his protest and funds his activism such as his Know Your Rights campaign, Zirin thinks it's naive to believe that Nike execs shall be the righteous messengers of social justice.
"This is Nike. Asking them to be a voice for social justice is like asking a dog to meow," he wrote. "[G]lobal, multibillion-dollar corporations that run an archipelago of sweatshops don't underwrite rebellions. They co-opt and quash them."
In August 2017, Nike was embroiled in a new wave of anti-sweatshop protests despite its apparent commitment in the last decade to improving its working conditions. As recent as August 2018, Nike is facing a lawsuit filed by its female employees over pay discrimination. How ironic is it that in 2003 Nike signed an endorsement deal with Serena Williams worth US$55 million?
Plus, Newsweek pointed out how Kaepernick has been a Nike athlete since 2011, and only now are they using him as the face of their campaign, with other rival brands having the same interest.
Which brings us to the question of the difference between sloganism and activism. Is it enough to raise awareness through what you wear or is this just paying lip service? Today, the commodification of values acts as a smokescreen to the real systemic problems happening within the walls of multibillion-dollar corporations. Heavy Discussion acknowledges the bold stance Nike has taken with this ad campaign but hopes it does not "give amnesia to consumers about the company’s own accountability to dismantle their own problematic workplace/labor culture."
It is a stark reminder that when we are presented something shiny, we may be blinded from something behind it. In our culture, those who hold the money also hold the loudhailer, and loud, bite-sized messages are gobbled down before you can chew it to decipher the layers. Our role as recipients of these messages then requires us to be active questioners rather than passive listeners.
So, the question I'm asking today (among the many convoluted ones I've asked along the way) is, if Nike says it believes in what Kaepernick stands for, is it sacrificing everything like he did?