Use of controversial star in Nike ad smart marketing, some say

A Nike ad with American football star Colin Kaepernick. The use of Kaepernick could be Nike's way to reclaim some of its edge.
A Nike ad with American football star Colin Kaepernick. The use of Kaepernick could be Nike's way to reclaim some of its edge.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Nike is weathering a backlash over its use of the controversial football star Colin Kaepernick as the face of its new campaign.

"Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts," US 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 advertisement was unveiled. After a US$4.2 billion (S$5.8 billion) fall in Nike's share market value following the ad, the firm's share price has recovered. Support for Nike poured in from sport stars such as Serena Williams and rapper Kanye West, who has praised the President in the past.

When football players Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson knelt during the anthem at a game on Sunday, Kaepernick tweeted: "They have not backed down, even when attacked and intimidated. Their courage will move the world forward!"

Mr Trump has hounded Kaepernick for kneeling before National Football League (NFL) games from August 2016, when the then San Francisco 49ers quarterback said he wanted to protest against 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," 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.

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

Respecting the flag has become one of Mr Trump's top talking points. The Constitution states 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 Kaepernick can no longer get hired by a team. He is now suing the NFL over that.

The controversy shows America's sharp political polarisation is compelling corporations to take sides. Nike joins a list of companies, including Harley-Davidson and Google, that have annoyed Mr Trump.

 
 

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

On the other side, Maine-based clothing company LL Bean, for instance, has supported Mr Trump.

"US corporations increasingly feel like they can't just keep their mouths shut, they have to pick a 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.

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 Kaepernick that turned it into a political statement. "What was Nike thinking?" Mr Trump tweeted on Sept 7.

The firm was thinking smart, the analyst said: "From a demographic perspective, it was a good move. They can take a calculated risk. It's a way to reclaim some of their edge."

Sports editor Dave Zirin of The Nation said: "Nike calculates that it doesn't need older football fans who think Kaepernick is un-American."

The editor, who is also author of eight books on the politics of sports, added: "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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline 'Use of controversial star in Nike ad smart marketing, some say'. Print Edition | Subscribe