What a peculiar place we find ourselves in 2018. Donald Trump’s abhorrent presidency has sent the world spinning off its axis, dissolving traditional ideological fault lines and making allies of once bitter enemies. The strangest bedfellows abound. Robert Mueller, infiltrator of anti-war groups and enabler of the destruction of Iraq, is now a liberal hero thanks to his ongoing collusion investigation against Trump. James Comey, right-wing ideologue and supporter of torture, also now finds himself on a liberal pedestal thanks to his vocal opposition to the Trump presidency, and to Trump personally.
The latest odd conflation? Nike and Colin Kaepernick. It was announced yesterday that the clothing company have made Kaepernick the face of their latest ad campaign. To be honest, knowing what we know about Kaepernick—the football star who sacrificed his career in the NFL by using his stardom to shine a light on the horrific violence that African-Americans suffer at the hands of the American police force—it’s pretty powerful stuff:
Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of branding for North America, was quoted by ESPN as saying: ‘We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.’
Of course, this move by Nike has sparked a backlash. In our current culture wars climate, everything must spark a backlash. Conservatives, angry at Nike for siding with a person they consider to be ‘disrespecting’ the ideals of the United States by kneeling during a football game, have now taken to burning their Nike products. Nike products that they have already bought.
First the @NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then @Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive? pic.twitter.com/4CVQdTHUH4— Sean Clancy (@sclancy79) September 3, 2018
The multiple levels of madness here are difficult to parse. So let’s break it down into a chain of consequence that’s easier to follow:
1. Nike, a multinational corporation and one of the most successful companies in the world, design a trainer.
2. They get the workers in their ‘free trade zone’ factories in China and Southeast Asia to make these trainers, paying them rock-bottom wages in near-slavery like conditions and human rights-abusing environments.
3. Nike sell these trainers in the West after marking the price up several hundred percent.
4. Nike, one of the most effective branding companies in the world and pioneers of the advertising model of selling an idea or value system more so than an actual product, decide to partner with Colin Kaepernick in order to use Kaepernick’s incredible stand against injustice to sell more trainers.
5. Some Westerners, angry at this move, decide to burn those trainers they already bought from Nike as a form of protest against the company’s decision.
Now, I’m not even going to bother commenting on the sheer idiocy of these people burning their trainers in the hopes that it will somehow damage one of the most powerful commercial entities in the world, or on the virulent racism underpinning their actions.
What I will say is this:
Nike knows what they are doing. They have crunched the numbers and they know exactly what the fuck they are doing. As a corporation, Nike will always follow the money. That is the one thing they are obligated to do, to maximise profits for their shareholders. They have no values, and no morals. They are as dependent on profit as a sunflower is on the path of the sun through the sky. They will tilt whichever way the rays of profit dictate, and they will use often cynical and manipulative methods in order to achieve this. You remember when Ram Trucks used a speech by Martin Luther King to sell a car? Yeah. Disgusting. Here, not only are Nike using Kaepernick’s message of racial justice to sell trainers, they are also banking on liberal-minded people jumping to defend them against the attacks from shoe-burning conservatives. At some point, Trump will almost certainly join the chorus against Nike, if he hasn’t already. In an era where we define ourselves almost as much by those we consider enemies as those we consider friends, Nike knows that there will be a swell of support—and ensuing profits—from those who hold themselves in opposition to the Trump side of the culture war. And war, as any good capitalist knows after all, is good business.
But there’s a layer of nuance to Nike’s dealing with Kaepernick. In deciding to throw their weight behind him, the corporation has signaled subtly that it knows which way the winds are blowing. It may be doing it for the wrong reasons, but it’s as clear as a beacon upon a mountaintop: The old world’s days are numbered. The world that these trainer-burning conservatives are clinging to, of white supremacy, of people of colour knowing their place, is coming to an end.
There isn’t much that annoys me more than corporations jumping on progressive bandwagons in order to better their image and thus improve their profits. Their very nature is built on exploiting the weak and the marginalised. Seeing multinationals who enslave the global South, who plunder and destroy the environment, and who side with regressive dictators, suddenly pretend like they have a conscience is beyond sickening. It is happening more and more these days. Mega-corporations with rainbow parade floats at Pride. Oil companies putting out press releases about the research and development they are doing in the name of the environment. Nike using racial justice campaigns as a slogan to sell more shoes. The cognitive dissonance makes my head hurt, and I wish they would all promptly disappear into the eternal void.
But there is a good reason for their bullshit, and that is where I choose to take some heart. They pay lip service to progressive causes because the conversation is shifting, and they know it. As time goes on it is becoming more and more clear to more people which side of history is the correct one to be on. And the big companies with images to protect are responding. It may just be the surface features they are adopting—with exploitative day-to-day operations carrying on behind the scenes business as usual—but it’s something. Something to cling on to in the dark hours of dread that usually accompany contemplating the state of our industrial capitalism- and hate-ravaged world.
As far as I’m concerned, Nike can go hang. For taking the stand that he did, and for continuing to fight the systemic violence that the American state visits upon African-Americans, Colin Kaepernick is a hero whose name deserves to ring out for generations. Nike, using that struggle to sell more products produced by exploited people of colour on the other side of the globe, should be ashamed. But if Nike’s ad helps to spread Kaepernick’s message that little bit further, if it helps to legitimise the righteous struggle that he is a part of, then at least it will have done some good. After all, Kaepernick is a smart man, and not one without agency in this situation. I don’t doubt he has made his own calculations here too.
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