The consequence of swooping activism

By Shira Jeczmien

Published Sep 13, 2018 at 03:54 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Branded activism has forever faced a mounting backlash. And for obvious reasons. What happens to political agency—usually rooted in inequality and the fury of those it affects—once it is used to sell consumer goods? That’s exactly what thousands exclaimed last week when Nike revealed its latest campaign featuring Take A Knee activist and former NFL quarterback player Colin Kaepernick. The new campaign depicts a black and white close up of Kaepernick with a Nike’s-esque inspirational quote, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” An unmissable yet subtle swoosh and “just do it” underneath seals and stamps the whole composition together.

The campaign accumulated, as predicted and perhaps provoked by Nike’s team, vast criticism as well as praise. On the one hand, liberals and activists, particularly of racial equality, criticised Kaepernick for selling out and with that diluting his fight against police brutality. While on the other hand, more conservative-leaning consumers and politicians (the President, of course, included), adhered that the brand should not be associating itself with a movement that the President and NFL team leaders have deemed against the rules at best, and unconstitutional at worst. Needless to say, shortly after the publication of the campaign the internet filled with hashtags such as #JustBurnIt and #BoycotNike and longstanding Trump supporters posted videos of their Nike gears set on fire.

As acutely noted by The Guardian’s Ben Carrington and Jules Boykoff, “Nike may be amplifying a courageous voice of dissent, but we should also recognise that it’s in its economic interest to do so.” Yet at the same time, Kaepernick and his peers have risked and lost their careers fighting for the Take A Knee movement for racial equality (his former teammate and fellow activist Eric Reid has equally not yet been resigned by an NFL team). Currently untouchable within the NFL, Nike’s campaign is directly helping Kaepernick fund his grassroots camp, Know Your Rights.

Brands’ adaptation of activist slogans and transformation of activist individuals into brand ambassadors is without a doubt worthy of debate. Scepticism towards attempts of this is important at times, such as the response to the ‘I am a Feminist’ T-shirts being adopted by high street brands. In other occasions, like in the case of the Pepsi ad fiasco, outright fury was equally appropriate. But if used correctly, brand adopted activism, as frightening as it may sound, could generate powerful results. Carrington and Boykoff hit the nail on the head when they identified Kaepernick’s fights as being essentially about “class politics”, and that Nike “rarely addresses issues around class, which is not surprising since Nike has an appalling history of labour.” Hence the brand’s adaptation of Kaepernick’s labour rights fight while itself being renewed for inhumane working conditions in more than 300 factories across the world is hypocritical and false. But despite this very correct argument, siding with this campaign still doesn’t seem as clear-cut.

The release of the campaign came at the start of the new NFL season, and while Nike arguably may be using the political divide across the country and the realm of sports to rank up sales, Kaepernick is equally utilising the global reach of the brand to keep his fight alive across the nation and across the world. As new players quickly fill in Kaepernick and Reid’s places, it is time to focus on the success this collaboration has had in reigniting the quarterback’s brave Take A Knee fight. Nike should be held accountable for its hollow stance on labour rights, but Kaepernick really has lost everything in his belief of something.

This article was originally published by FAIRPLANET and is part of an ongoing content partnership.

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