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Colin Kaepernick & Political Discourse

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1515 words Published: 18th Mar 2021

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Nike unveiled its most divisive marketing campaign in September 2018. Colin Kaepernick, a NFL player protesting in solidarity of police brutality and discrimination, was included. Several people reacted instantly to the release of the movement by posting photos of Nike shoes burning on Twitter along with the hashtag "BoycottNike.  Nike has used star athletes to both deal with relevant social issues and to improve its marketing efforts, from Charles Barkley who admits he isn't a role model and Tiger Woods sharing experiences of discrimination in golf clubs. Throughout 2018, Adidas undoubtedly launched his most divisive and dangerous marketing advertisement, featuring Colin Kaepernick as the brand's logo. The group marked the 30th anniversary of its motto "Just Do It," but also held a clear position on the violence of the officers.

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Throughout recent years, Kaepernick is known not only as a productive NFL player, but also as a social activist. During the National Hymn before matches he began to kneel to protest police brutality and racial discrimination in 2016. The demonstration became very controversial when President Donald Trump stated openly that every protesting player should be shot as other players joined him. The campaign is still heavily debated. In 2019, Kaepernick and the NFL resolved a confrontation case charged by the League to keep him away.  Nike reignited a cultural war by naming Colin Kaepernick as their spokesman for the project "Just Do It" on the 30th anniversary.  The launch of the company sportswear came through a new ad, which inspires young African Americans, Muslim women, physically disabled athletes and white skateboarders all to chase their aspirations regardless of their craziness.  The ad by Adidas presents Kaepernick with the words "Believe something. Even if it means sacrificing something, "He embodied this concept when he sacrificed his NFL career for his belief in social justice and civil rights activism.  So soon so Kaepernick announced his Nike affiliation, several people took the hashtag “BoycottNike” on Twitter and burned their own photos of Nike clothes. The initial reaction on Twitter revealed that the business risked alienating clients who had opposing views and expressed concern about whether the advertisement would harm.

Nike brand ambassador, Kaepernick's role may seem like political theater to oppose Donald Trump and his supporters. But the truth is much clearer. Nike is a strategic company. Nike's biggest customers were clearly profiled by the Kaepernick ad: young urban shoppers, whose opinions will reflect the publicity's obvious reference to inclusion and social justice.  Leveraging the endorsement of celebrities in marketing can be an effective strategy to gain trust from an audience and shape a brand. Seno and Lukas (2007) identified celebrity endorsement as a practice of co-branding for the company and the endorser. Through a review of previous research, Seno and Lukas found that celebrity endorsement is a reciprocal relationship – endorsement not only affects the image of the brand but also that of the celebrity – especially when there is consistency between characteristics of the endorser and the product that is being endorsed. This means that audience perceptions of the company and of the celebrity begin to converge. In the case of the current Kaepernick and Nike study, one can assume that Kaepernick’s partnership with Nike has caused people to hold parallel perceptions toward the player and the company.

Cunningham and Regan (2011) also examined the idea of celerity-brand congruence, but sought to understand how race and political activism play a role in perceptions of athlete-product fit. They found that political activism and racial identity, taken individually, did not have any direct effect on perceived trustworthiness to an audience. However, a combination of strong racial identity and non-controversial activism positively correlated with trustworthiness and athlete-product fit. Lear, Runyan, and Whitaker (2009) expanded upon these ideas and applied them directly to retail product advertising. Using print media in sporting magazines, the researchers found that the use of sports influencers has increased in recent years. Additionally, when analyzing Nike’s partnership with Tiger Woods, they found that Nike had a large return-on-investment from the sponsorship despite the marital infidelity scandal surrounding Woods. This finding suggests that Nike will have the same success with Colin Kaepernick.  “Nike is clearly taking advantage of hot-button social issues to promote their brand, but commercializing human rights is tricky territory. Can a global brand like Nike really support a cause without coopting it? And is the company prepared to face scrutiny over its own ethical record?” (Chadd, Zipp, 2018)

The Kaepernick situation has led to an increased level of public attention towards Nike and its place in politics.  “The company suffered an own-goal this spring, when a New York Times investigation revealed complaints from 50 current and former employees about Nike’s “boys’ club” culture of sexual harassment and gender pay disparities. The allegations led to several high-profile departures from Nike headquarters in Oregon, but it didn’t end there. In August, four female executives filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for gender discrimination. In the #Metoo era, Nike has, once again, found itself on the wrong side of the debate. It’s no wonder then that some commentators have become uncomfortable with Nike’s foray into politics, arguing that it’s a cynical ploy to hijack social movements in order to sell shoes. Causes and campaigns can be big business for sportswear companies and may even do some good – just look at Adidas’ training shoes made from ocean waste.” 

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Chad and Zipp, however, blame Nike criticizing their ability to handle PR crisis.  They state that Nike’s very decision to use the quote in the Kapernick advertisement “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything”, because it is politically integratory.  “It’s the kind of soaring rhetoric you might expect to hear at a Black Lives Matter rally or the Women’s March on Washington. It’s certainly a far cry from the banter between Michael Jordan and Spike Lee from the original Just Do It adverts three decades ago.”, they write.  The authors even go as far as to say that Nike’s actions are an exploitation of justice.  They see Nike's choice of Kaepernick to take on the latest issues like racism, islamophobia and violations of human rights as a form of making false equivalencies, asserting that the advertisement and its slogan portray an oversimplification of social justice issues.  Additionally, the authors predict that Nike will eventually become even more profitable because of these public conflicts in the media.  “We should expect more of this kind of corporate support for social issues in Trump’s divided America.  Capitalism and activism have always been uneasy bedfellows, but companies should be wary of appropriating social justice movements and equating buying products to fighting for human rights.  Nike, and other companies, risk exposing their own skeletons in the closet by taking these high and mighty stances.”, Chad and Zipp write.  I will conclude this essay with a quote directly from social media, as it perfectly demonstrates the concepts discussed in this analysis. Jemele Hill, staff Writer for the Atlantic, tweeted, “Nike became Nike because it was built on the idea of rebellion. This is the same company that dealt w/ the NBA banning Air Jordans. They made Jordan the face of the company at a time when black men were considered to be a huge risk as pitch men. They aren’t new to this.”  That was posted on September 3rd, 2019.  And to this moment, Nike, Colin Kaepernick, and the related controversies still exist, just as much as they did after Nike’s 2018 advertisement.  Will the rhetoric in today’s political discourse continue to be fed by athletes, capitalism, and social media?  Only time will tell.     


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