Hold the Applause: Nike, Social Justice, and Capitalism

In September, Nike unveiled its new ad campaign with former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. The tagline of the campaign read: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The campaign references Kaepernick’s exit from professional football after protesting police brutality and the systemic racism faced by the black community. Headlines have since poured in praising Nike for its supposedly “bold,” “brave,” and “principled” stance. Across the internet, people proudly announced their intention to go to their local sporting goods store and buy Nike. Celebrities and activists commended Nike for ostensibly standing up for Kaepernick and the black community.
Of course, reality is not so charitable.

One of the most insidious qualities of capitalism is its extraordinary ability to refashion exploitation into a hip, digestible, and “socially conscious” facade. Underneath the heartwarming ad campaigns and emotional slogans lay the structurally-required, incessant expansion of profit margins (amongst other things). This structure necessitates commodification: if it can be manipulated into serving the interests of capital, then it shall be so. Social justice is no exception. Consequently, the commodity of social justice is not any tangible justice or progress, but rather the spectacle of social justice, one that is groomed, marketable, and within certain acceptable bounds. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Nike-Kaepernick ad campaign.

Though the undertones of the Nike ad campaign have political implications, Nike takes no actual position on the issues of police brutality or racial injustice. The slogan cleverly sits on the fence, patently refusing to take part in anything constructive on the subject of racial injustice but profiting handsomely both socially and financially by loosely alluding to it. Just hours after the campaign was announced, it generated $43 million in media exposure. Additionally, Nike’s profits spiked 31 percent after the ad campaign, according to a study conducted by Edison Trends. Evidently, the spectacle of social justice was good for business.

To put it plainly, Nike – with its history of horrid working conditions, exploitative practices, and worker abuse – couldn’t care less about human rights, social justice or even Kaepernick beyond their profitability. If they did, it would beg these questions: where was Nike two years ago when Kaepernick’s kneeling protest was at the cultural forefront and the recipient of nationalistic vitriol across the country? Why did Nike sign an apparel deal in March with none other than Kaepernick’s opponents at the NFL, who voted on a new policy to fine players visibly protesting during the national anthem and who are currently tied in a legal battle against the former 49ers quarterback for colluding to keep him out of the league? Rather, to borrow the terms of Lora Harding, a marketing professor from Belmont University, Nike “did their homework” in that 2-year period while also locking in their deal with NFL to create game-day uniforms and sideline apparel for all 32 teams. This freed Nike to exploit Kaepernick’s image without worrying about backlash against its assets from his opponents. Again, no massive multi-billion dollar corporation would make such an ostensibly polarizing move without conducting meticulous research and the utmost deliberation. According to Bob Dorfman, creative director at Baker Street Advertising, Nike’s target demographic is the younger crowd who prioritize (an image of) social consciousness. Based on Dorfman’s analysis, the concept for the campaign was most likely well researched, with customers probably surveyed prior for their responses to the ad.

The lesson is clear: while the veneer of diversity and social justice is welcomed when it serves the interests of capital, it is shunned when it hurts them.

An optimist may retort with, “Sure, but so what? Even if it wasn’t sincere, it still brings more eyes to his protest,” and perhaps so. However, the co-optation of social movements and commodification of social justice remain so problematic because these phenomena accomplish a significant task for the capitalist: they take genuinely radical activism, rob it of its subversive nature, and then incorporate it into the capitalist system to serve its interests via consumerism. What was once subversive becomes beneficial to the system, while still retaining the marketable image of “resistance” and “counterculture.” Consumption suddenly becomes an act imbued with transcendent ethical meaning and value. And more specifically, with the topic at hand, consumption of Nike has become symbolic denunciation of police brutality against black communities rather than what it actually is: an act that bolsters profits for capitalists exploiting their overseas factory workers. This commodification thus betrays and pacifies rebellion, disarming resistance and radical action that would otherwise legitimately threaten the status quo.

While the co-optation of social justice movements is more prevalent now as social values and norms progress and society begins to care more about companies taking stances, it is certainly not a new development. Indeed, one can look to the suffragette movement of the early 20th century and how it became an experiment for Edward Bernays, the man largely referred to as the father of public relations, in commodifying social justice. Bernays, being the pioneer of propaganda and public relations that he was, was hired by a major American tobacco company for the purpose of expanding its market to women. Tobacco companies had become frustrated as the reactionary social stigma against women smoking had been preventing them from a whole world of profits. Bernays, in a stroke of brilliance, decided to link the image of smoking with women’s liberation; he hired a handful of women to march on the Easter Sunday parade and light their Lucky Strike cigarettes (or “torches of freedom” as they were remarkably called). Immediately, sales began skyrocketing as women began to see smoking as the quintessential act of sexual liberation. Ergo, the radical image of social justice for women became a product to be bought and sold to serve the engines of capitalism.

Though it’s quite appealing to do so, we must not let ourselves be seduced by the cheery, uplifting ad campaigns singing the tunes of social progress. In telling ourselves these fictions of “conscious capitalism,” we foolishly believe that we have fulfilled our moral responsibilities bound to us as humans of attempting to make the world into a better place for the marginalized of our communities, thus paralyzing real change.

Salaar Maghazeh is a second-year Political Science major. He can be reached at amaghaze@uci.edu.