The Things That Won’t Fit in a Nike Ad

Colin Kaepernick in the new ad campaign from Nike (Courtesy Nike/Handout via Reuters)
The controversial new Colin Kaepernick spot is a perfect example of why brands should avoid politics altogether.

It’s just another ordinary week in 2018, which means that people all over the country are supposedly working themselves into white-hot frenzied bundles of rage over some controversy slapped together in the churning, ever-grasping tentacles of our good friend the Internet. This time, the culprit is Nike, which released an ad featuring former NFL national-anthem-kneeler Colin Kaepernick as the new face of its long-running “Just Do It” campaign. Behold, the ponderous text: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Boy oh boy, we’re told, are people mad! Masses of Americans are so enraged that at least three people set their Nike socks on fire and posted about it online, which means the drama must be real and intense and widespread! Overwhelming numbers of people, we are informed, are completely losing their minds about Nike. The Internet, that wizened, wretched sage of our time, says they are, and the Internet, as we all know, never lies.

My feelings, on the other hand, can perhaps best be summed up by a parody of the Kaepernick “Just Do It” ad making the rounds online. It stars the famously lackadaisical former Chicago Bears quarterback “Smokin’” Jay Cutler. Here is the not-so-ponderous text, paired with a doctored photo of Cutler suited up for game time while halfheartedly smoking a drooping, well-worn cigarette: “Don’t care. Even if it means not caring about anything. Just do it. Or don’t. I don’t care.”

Ha! You tell ’em, fake photoshopped Jay! Does that sound cynical? Perhaps. But I’m here to argue that when it comes to ginned-up controversies such as the Nike brouhaha, moderated cynicism might be your best friend.

To be fair, it probably helps that I don’t really care about football. I happen to live in Texas, where such a brazen statement might send more-timid souls into the federal witness-protection program, but here I stand. As I see it, college basketball is truly the most magnificent and glorious of sports, hands down — or at least it was until recent years, when the best players started showing up to play in college for approximately one nanosecond before rocketing off to the NBA. In any case, my football agnosticism has certainly helped the anthem-kneeling controversy — which is somehow still apparently a matter of national concern, heaven help us all — disappear from the more valuable rental space inside my head.

Moreover, I’m certainly not recommending cynicism on all fronts. When it comes to the Kaepernick-inspired debate, there are many serious issues at play — issues worthy of reasoned discussion. You might think that athletes should be able to kneel during the national anthem as a matter of free speech. You might think it’s disrespectful to do so. You might think that Kaepernick was right to call attention to police violence, but wrong to wear socks depicting police officers as pigs. You might even think all of these things at the same time!

But these things are complicated, and they certainly don’t fit in a Nike ad, which has one overarching goal: To bring attention to Nike, a massive corporation under fire for various ethical issues as we speak. That plan is working, with the online hullaballoo surrounding the Kaepernick ad translating into $43 million in free media and counting, according to the Apex Marketing Group.

In this sense, the current Nike-ad kerfuffle is a perfect symbol of our 280-character political culture, isn’t it? Nuance, schmuance. There’s no need even to pretend to get mad, my friends: Sit back, relax, and wait. Sure as the sun will rise, another Internet-stoked flame war will round the corner soon. People will be livid, although you will never witness this in person! They will be incensed, but not really! They will be inconsolable, except they won’t! Just as quickly as it appeared, the controversy will disappear, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Here’s my modest proposal: If Americans should be annoyed at anything — and I generally don’t recommend getting livid and incensed and inconsolable on a regular basis — it’s that corporate advertising is creeping into the political sphere at all. Such ads are divisive, they’re often ineffective, and they’re not even edgy. Just sell me some jeans! (Or, on second thought, maybe don’t: Like most reasonable Americans, I hate shopping for jeans.)

A truly cutting-edge, countercultural move would involve brands staying out of politics altogether, or even — wait for it — explicitly stating that people of all political stripes are welcome customers. No, really, I’m serious! Okay, fine, stop laughing. That’s crazy talk, I know. Sigh. As a great fake advertisement on the Internet once said: Whatever. Just do it. Or don’t.


Heather Wilhelm is a columnist for National Review. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, RealClearPolitics, the Washington Examiner, Commentary magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Kansas City Star


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