Big Message, Big Money

What's wrong with Kaepernick commercializing his cause? Nothing. Nike's dollars and reach are the boost that will ensure Kap's place in history.
photo of Joon LeeJoon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterSeptember 6, 2018

No platform reflects the ideals of America at any point in history like advertising. It echoes the country's ambitions more than television, movies or print. The narrative of progress drives American ambition. And now Nike, the biggest sports apparel company in the world, has decided to make Colin Kaepernick the face of its new large marketing campaign.

Today, in our capitalist economy, Nike broadcasts that standing for racial equality is a dream worth aspiring to. It also demonstrates a belief that standing for racial equality is financially profitable. In a country where money and power are inextricably tied together—where a 30-second advertisement during the Super Bowl costs $5 million—Kaepernick now finds himself with the most powerful platform in America: an advertising campaign for a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Whether it's Rogaine showing how you could grow back your hair, Juul explaining how you could be a cool kid by vaping or a beer company saying its drink could bring your friends together, advertising in the United States is trying to sell you on how things can be better within the capitalistic bubble that we live in. The fact that Kaepernick's message is framed as a positive on a platform greater than day-to-day media discourse represents a major marking point in how history will view his protest.

"Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything," the poster reads.

Nike is telling us that you should want to be like Kaepernick, and in the U.S., where there's no separation between cultural ambition and power and money, there is no more optimal medium than advertising. There is Colin Kaepernick, standing up for what he believes in, featured in a Nike advertising campaign. 

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The message and the money are now inseparable, and the cynicism from many approaching Nike's recent ad campaign is understandable. Attaching potential sports-gear profits to a social cause is not something that previous American sports civil rights figures did at the peak of their pioneering or protesting.

Jackie Robinson did not create his own line of sneakers. Muhammad Ali wasn't trying to sell shirts while protesting the Vietnam War. Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn't sell merch with their iconic photo from the 1968 Olympics.

But now we see the monetization of a protest entering its third NFL season, and the Nike campaign only further legitimizes Kaepernick's cause, providing a platform whose sheer size can only be provided by a company with a global reach.

Dr. Michael Butterworth—a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the intersection of rhetoric, democracy, militarism and sports—said that Kaepernick's arc in the public space mirrors that of Ali, Robinson, Carlos and Smith, from pariah to civil rights icon.

"Ali [ended] up becoming a spokesman for race a decade after he [was] perceived as being a threat to the social norms and order," Butterworth said. "Kaepernick is still in the middle of being perceived as a threat in our culture, and in our White House. There's something interesting in [finding out] whether he would have the same marketing viability like Ali did after people softened on him."

Kaepernick's deal is reportedly worth millions and, according to Yahoo's Charles Robinson, will include a branded line of shoes and apparel. In just the first 19 hours, the media campaign generated $43 million in media exposure, according to Bloomberg. Is it fair to wonder if Kaepernick sold out with a company facing various issues tied to its treatment of women and factory workers?

Dr. Teresa Mastin, chairperson of the department of advertising and public relations at Michigan State, said that Kaepernick's situation could undermine his primary mission: that for all the money changing hands, none of it would actually help the disenfranchised he set out to help in the first place.

"That piece is messy because we've never had an advertisement campaign in the past where someone is a pariah and also makes a lot of money," Martin said. "We don't know how this is going to play out."

Butterworth sees both sides: "[The Nike sponsorship] provides a stamp of approval for a lot of people, though there are a lot of folks who...have voiced their disapproval of Nike. When a corporate voice...puts its name in association with [an] issue, it might confer that [issue] legitimacy to Nike. It causes uncertainty in coming to terms with the influence of money, marketing and power."

But Butterworth says regardless of how many detractors today chop up their Nike tube socks and burn their Air Monarchs, history shows that we'll look back reverentially at Kaepernick's protests, this ad campaign and everything that went into this decision.

"It's easy to forecast a moment in 10 or 20 years from now where people say Kaepernick really made a difference, [where] many villainized him in the moment and only recognized after the fact that what he did was meaningful. Given the way public perception rehabilitated Ali, Smith, Carlos and other people perceived as troublemakers at the time, there's a good pathway to that for Kaepernick."

By making him the lead image of its 30th anniversary of the "Just Do It" campaign, Nike is helping to ensure that positive historic legacy. The sponsorship legitimizes a cause on the biggest of platforms. It says that a social movement has become so large that corporations can't ignore it anymore.

The foundation of America, as seen in the current White House, is built upon power and money. Nike's ad campaign is the most powerful, wide-reaching power-and-money card that Kaepernick could possibly play.

The fight against racial inequality will never end, but Kaepernick has already made a difference. Combining activism and money isn't like mixing water and oil. Without money, change doesn't happen, and one day, among the Muhammad Ali Avenues and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards, maybe we'll see a Colin Kaepernick Drive. And if we do, it'll be partially because of, and not despite, the fact that Kap got the bag.

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