It might be the most striking advertisement of 2018. A black-and-white headshot of the polarizing Colin Kaepernick with these words: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
However one feels about policing or race relations in America, the advertisement is visually impressive and viscerally moving. Marking the 30th anniversary of their "Just Do It" campaign, Nike chose to thrust themselves into the culture war at a high point in American political divisiveness.
Kaepernick, as nearly everyone knows, protested what he perceived to be an epidemic of police brutality against people of colour in the U.S. by kneeling, rather than standing, for the anthem before NFL games. The move sparked debate across America, inspired dozens of other NFL players to join the protest and eventually left Kaepernick unemployed.
The former San Francisco 49er has become reviled by many Americans, including, most notably, U.S. President Donald Trump. Yet Kaepernick's also become a folk hero to millions of others, sacrificing fame and fortune to stand (read: kneel) for an important social cause.
Admittedly, there are minor risks in Nike's venture. The anti-Kaepernick crowd, who views the quarterback as an enemy of American virtue and civic nationalism, will certainly attempt a boycott of Nike products. In the immediate aftermath of the advertisement's release, Nike shares closed more than three per cent lower than the previous day, reflecting investor worry. However, the shares are still close to a 12-month high, and after the initial share drop, Nike holdings increased by 18 per cent.
The athletic apparel goliath has made a calculated business decision to bet on Kaepernick, who has established himself as an icon of the age, drawing comparisons to such legendary figures of social conscience as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.
And while on the surface Nike sells shoes and basketballs and over-priced socks that all the cool kids are wearing, they're truly in the business of selling heroes. It's a strategy that's worked time and time again for Nike, from Tiger Woods to Serena Williams to, perhaps most famously, Michael Jordan.
And now Kaepernick, the man who turned down an enviable life of financial security to protest injustice, has become next in line to fulfill Nike's hero archetype. Kaepernick's appeal targets Nike's core consumer demographic base of 15 to 40-year-olds. He's been centre stage in public discourse since 2016, most recently through a labour arbitrator denying the NFL's bid to throw out Kaepernick’s collusion case.
Despite Donald Trump using his Twitter fingers to ask, "What was Nike thinking?" the answer seems obvious to the rest of us.
What was Nike thinking?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2018
Kaepernick will generate more and more publicity, no matter the results of his arbitration case. With all this in mind, Nike's decision makes all the sense in the world. Kaepernick, for millions of disenfranchised and disillusioned people across the globe, is a hero. With Trump, NFL owners and the "Make America Great Again" crowd as his primary foils, Nike has forced the consumer to pick a side in the latest skirmish of America's culture wars.
And there's a good chance Nike knows where buyers will flock; so far, their online sales increased 31 per cent since the ad was released. To some it might seem like faux social consciousness, coming from the company of sweatshops and gender discrimination. But for Nike, social causes are worth espousing if sneakers are sold in the process. And, with Kaepernick on board, they should continue flying off the shelves.