In his book Second Coming, author Sam Smith describes Michael Jordan’s laissez-faire approach to American politics with a pithy quote attributed to the basketball superstar: “Republicans buy shoes, too”. Arguably the best Nike pitchman ever, MJ didn’t alienate any section of the market and thus guided the philosophy for sports marketers for years. So it was counterintuitive, then, when Nike on Monday released its latest ad. It’s a radical campaign that recalibrates everything that sports managers, spin doctors or image consultants have been taught in management school or have learnt through consumer research.
Nike’s latest face is a man who is the antithesis of Jordan. Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, didn’t exactly set the football pitch on fire with his runs, but in 2016, he became one of the most recognisable NFL athletes across the globe when he knelt during the customary pre-match playing of the US National Anthem to protest injustice and police atrocities against African-Americans. Other black athletes followed suit and, before long, President Donald Trump and other Republicans were railing against the protesters, describing the gesture as a sign of disrespect to America. No NFL team signed Kaepernick in 2017 and his career came to a grinding halt. The league also banned on-field protests. It’s against this background that Nike, which incidentally also has an apparel deal with NFL, ran the Kaepernick ad. It’s a big risk, and the reaction has been swift. People have posted videos of their sneakers on fire, proclaiming they have chosen the country over their favourite footwear. But many more have shown solidarity with the brand and the athlete.
There’s much to laud in the campaign, not least its tagline — “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”. But it could also be accused of making protest a product and selling it. The campaign comes at a time when Trump’s propularity in America and abroad is at its lowest. If more and more non-Republicans flock to Nike stores, it may not matter much if Republicans buy the shoes or not.