Nike's political statement is smart marketing, some say; enjoys 31% bump in online sales

A Nike billboard featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, seen in New York City on Sept 8, 2018.
A Nike billboard featuring American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, seen in New York City on Sept 8, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Nike is weathering a backlash over its use of the controversial athlete Colin Kaepernick as the face of its new campaign.

"Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts," President Donald Trump tweeted last week, as his supporters called for a boycott of the brand. Some burned Nike shoes in protest.

But reports say otherwise.

Nike's online sales jumped by over 30 per cent in the days after the ad was unveiled. After a US$4.2 billion (S$5.8 billion) fall in the days after the campaign was released, the company's share price has recovered.

Support for Nike has poured in, from top athletes like Serena Williams, and even from rapper Kanye West, who has praised the President in the past.

And when two other players, Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson, kneeled during the national anthem at a football game last Sunday (Sept 9), Mr Kaepernick tweeted his support, saying: "They have not backed down, even when attacked and intimidated. Their courage will move the world forward!"

Mr Trump has long hounded Mr Kaepernick for his kneeling protest at the beginning of National Football League (NFL) games, starting in August 2016 when the then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers said he wanted to protest police brutality against African Americans.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour," Mr Kaepernick explained. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

 

The protest became a trend. But in an intensely polarised political environment, in which patriotism has been co-opted and weaponised by the President and his supporters, the message was distorted.

Mr Kaepernick was being unpatriotic, the narrative went - and so was the NFL for allowing him to kneel.

Respecting the flag has been turned into one of the President's top talking points.

The Constitution does state that Americans should stand and face the flag when the national anthem is played. But there are no penalties if one does not.

The NFL eventually caved in and Mr Kaepernick can no longer get hired by a team. He now is suing the NFL over that.

Apart from giving both sides of the political divide in America another excuse to laugh at each other - one young man reportedly burned down his house by accident when he set fire to his Nike shoes - the controversy shows how America's sharp political polarisation is compelling corporations to take sides.

Nike has joined a list of corporations that have annoyed President Trump's for various reasons. Others include Harley Davidson, Amazon and Google.

In February, the Dick's Sporting Goods chain announced that its sister company, Field & Stream, would discontinue the sale of semi-automatic AR-15 rifles used in many mass shootings and raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21. Trump supporters called it a stunt and many began boycotting the chain.

On the other side, Maine-based clothing company LL Bean, for instance, has been a staunch supporter of the President.

"US corporations increasingly feel like they can't just keep their mouths shut, they have to pick some side. Maybe also given the personal views of a lot of CEOs in recent years they have thrown in their lot with liberal social causes," a political risk analyst told The Straits Times, asking not to be named citing his employer's rules on talking to the media.

The Nike ad itself is not political; it is about believing in one's dreams and surpassing one's handicaps. It was the choice of Mr Kaepernick that turned it into a political statement.

"What was Nike thinking?" President Trump tweeted on Sept 7.

The company was thinking smart, according to the analyst who spoke to The Straits Times. "From a demographic perspective, it was a good move," he said. "They can take a calculated risk. It's a way to reclaim some of their edge."

Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and author of eight books on the politics of sport, said: "Nike calculates that it doesn't need older football fans who think Kaepernick is un-American.

"It knows it can profit on its stars' role in the zeitgeist, their edginess.

"Nike is appealing to a restive, even radical youth market far more likely to see athletes like LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick as heroes than villains."