One of the more infamously cynical quotes in the history of modern sports is attributed to Michael Jordan, who, declining to endorse a U.S. Senate candidate against a racist incumbent, allegedly quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” The line itself may be apocryphal, but its symbolism is surely not: For decades, it circulated as conventional wisdom within the sports industry to explain why the archetypal 1960s activist athlete had vanished from view. That era was, not coincidentally, the same one in which revenue from TV and merchandise rights exploded.
On Monday, by debuting an ad campaign celebrating the anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan that features quarterback-provocateur Colin Kaepernick, Nike has effectively put Jordan’s theory to the test: Will #MAGA believers still buy sneakers, too? Or is there a ripe enough target to be carved out among the self-styled resistance?
The very premise of these questions, however, shows how deeply delusional branding has rendered us as consumers. At one point in human history, products were bought and sold for their utility. Now, because of the massive and unchecked expansion of corporate power — not just in terms of market share but actual mindshare — products must represent values, lifestyles and, in the age of President Donald Trump, political ideologies.
But my sneakers, ultimately, cannot be woke. They’re just fabric.
They’re fabric, moreover, that was stitched together by a subcontracted laborer in the developing world who probably was paid as little as humanely possible and whose income represents but a fraction of what Nike will charge for each pair — or what endorsees such as Kaepernick will reap for touting them. Corporations have little interest in foregrounding her plight (and it’s usually a her), but that’s what “woke branding” used to mean: thinking about the marginalized who actually make our stuff rather than the posturing it affords those privileged enough to own it.
This is the long con that advertising has played, and it has played it well.
The fact that, in the wake of this week’s Kaepernick flap, the media — social and mainstream alike — worked itself into a frothy, viral tizzy means that Nike already won, independent of Dow stock gyrations or free publicity estimates. Whether you eagerly retweet the ad or torch your sneakers in the front yard, you are already acceding to the delusional anthropomorphization of Nike. And despite what some presidential candidates might have claimed, corporations are still not people.
That Nike would make this play is simultaneously surprising and obvious. It is surprising given how much the social justice protests of recent NFL seasons rattled ratings and startled sponsors, from DirecTV to USAA to Anheuser-Busch to Papa John’s. Following Jordan’s dictum, conventional wisdom had held, until this week at least, that Kaepernick and his cause were bad for business.
Yet the commercial gambit is equally obvious in retrospect. For one thing, our brand culture zeitgeist seems to demand it. In an American era in which almost nothing escapes politicization — and, more precisely, nothing escapes the megalomaniacal gravity of “What does President Trump think of it?” — corporations increasingly assume they have to tiptoe beyond milquetoast social responsibility platitudes to take edgier stands. Like callers on sports talk radio, they’re supposed to have a hot take.
Hence, we are now asked, as consumers, questions of ever greater political specificity: Where does my light beer stand on immigration reform? Should I fly with a domestic carrier that’s in favor of background checks? Does this Whopper support net neutrality?
These are all valuable, important questions and I have my own biases in answering them. But it is utterly ridiculous that brand culture has subsumed so much of our public space — and mental space — that it becomes the crucible for that political participation, especially when practices like, you know, actual voting limp along. Corporations don’t really care about the adjudication of these issues beyond their shareholders’ bottom line. They can’t. It’s not in their fiduciary responsibility.
Ultimately, Nike’s coaptation of Kaepernick squares perfectly with the meritocratic capitalist ethos it has cultivated for decades: Anyone can pull themselves up by their own Air Jordans, if they have enough gumption to work hard. Yet Kaepernick’s actual grievance and his protest evinces quite the opposite message: that the playing field is not level.
Indeed, the almost perfect counter-metaphor for this week’s ad was also provided by Nike and Jordan, who, at the 1992 Olympics, draped a U.S. flag over the shoulder of his award ceremony jumpsuit to hide the Reebok logo sponsor. Two decades later, Nike revived that diss as a branded T-shirt. It now retails on eBay for $39.99.
Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communication at Boston College, is the author of “Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing.”