A friend of mine and fellow writer, Matthew Edwards, recently brought the Nike controversy to my attention.
“Are you following the Nike stuff?” he DM’ed me. “Is there anything more cyberpunk than turning social protest into a marketing and advertising strategy?”
For those of you who, like me, were unaware of what’s going on, here’s the tl;dr. Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a football player famous for kneeling during the national anthem in peaceful protest of racial injustice in the United States. The ad showcases a series of inspirational stories of a diverse number of athletes. “It’s only crazy until you do it,” the ad concludes. Some people, including President Trump, took to Twitter to condemn the ad, and also to post pictures of them burning Nike shoes or chopping up Nike socks. Others have responded by expressing support for Nike and vowing to buy only that brand in the future. Still others are pointing out that the shoes being burned would be better off being donated to needy veterans, and the homeless. As of the writing of this blog post, it’s not clear whether Nike has actually made or lost any significant money since the ad broke.
In browsing through articles on the story from news sources on both sides of the political aisle, I agreed with Matthew. The line between corporation and government, politics and profit is extremely blurry right now. We chatted back and forth about whether we thought the tactic would work. Would consumers go for the ad and buy Nike, in an effort to reward the company for backing what they believed to be important social and cultural issues? Would they identify it as a marketing scheme using social protest for profit? Surely people were becoming well-practiced at spotting brands using social issues to buy customer loyalty by now.
“The reason I think the Nike thing might work is that most millennials have been trained to the idea that they vote with their dollars more than at the voting booth,” I told Matthew. “So a lot of what I’m seeing is people deciding to support Nike right now because they want to reward that kind of behavior.”
The Nike situation is an example of how strange a world we’ve come to live in. Marketing shapes our culture and our way of life here in America. As a result, diversity in advertising is just as important as diversity in books, movies, career paths and so on. The Nike ad is just another brick building towards that goal. If I want Nike, and other giant corporations like it, to continue to this end, then it follows that I need to reward it in the only way companies can understand: increasing their bottom line.
This is, however, a dangerous proposition. A vote is a voice, and whenever we equate money to votes, so called “voting with our dollars”, we are necessarily reinforcing the idea that the rich have more of a right to be heard than the poor. Those without buying power have no voice at all. In the short term, it might serve the purposes of social reform to reward brands that fall in line with the change we as consumers would like to see. In the long term I worry that we are only reinforcing existing power structures that value money over humanity.
We have a pretty problem on our hands. If we want to see positive change, we must pay for it. If we pay for it, we reinforce the structure that values money over people, the very system we seek to unseat. If we do not pay for it, we do not see change. So we pay. And the dizzying circle continues.
I can see the problem, but I don’t have a solution.