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Social Media Spotlight: Nike supports Kaepernick’s message in latest ad

On Sept. 3, Nike rolled out their ‘Just Do It’ 30-year anniversary campaign, making Colin Kaepernick the face. Kaepernick has reached more than 900,000 likes on his tweet announcing the campaign but has also received criticism from brand supporters, who even went as far as burning their Nike apparel. | Courtesy of Nike

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained national recognition after leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, but his legacy goes far beyond what happens after the first snap.

It comes from not standing during the national anthem and starting a nationwide conversation on social injustice, spreading his name across the country and even as far as the White House.

After inspiring athletes to take a stand, he motivated Nike to do the same. Practicing its ‘Just Do It’ mantra on its 30-year anniversary, Nike made Kaepernick the face of its campaign with a message that urges people to believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.

“I think that Colin Kaepernick is going down in history as the Muhammad Ali and John Carlos of this younger generation,” said Ashley DeWalt, a marketing adjunct at the Bauer College of Business. “When you talk to most young people that are Generation Z, they may not even know who Muhammad Ali was, but they’ll know who Colin Kaepernick is.”

In 2016, Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest of racism and the oppression of colored people. This action sparked national discourse on social injustice and put his career on hold. He has been a free agent since March 2017. 

Kaepernick’s actions weren’t without catalyst. It was a response to what was going on in the country at the time: white supremacists protesting outside of the NAACP’s Houston headquarters, teenagers being forced to remove Black Lives Matter apparel and the killing of an armed black man, according to the New York Times.

On Sept. 3, Nike supported Kaepernick’s message by making him the face of their ‘Just Do It’ 30-year anniversary campaign, causing a divide between Kaepernick’s supporters and critics — reaching over 900,000 likes on Kaepernick’s Twitter but also receiving responses varying from written disapproval to the burning of Nike apparel.

‘Smart move’

Although the NFL and President Donald Trump changed the narrative of the protest into one of disrespect to the American flag, DeWalt said Kaepernick intended on addressing social injustice.

Kaepernick initially sat during the 2016 NFL preseason but transitioned to kneeling to put an end to talk of disrespecting troops and the flag after consulting with former Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in an interview with the NFL in 2016 after sitting during the anthem. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Even with the opposition Kaepernick faces, DeWalt said support differentiates Kaepernick from past civil rights leaders, like Muhammad Ali and John Carlos.

Ali, a professional boxer, and Carlos, a track and field athlete, were civil rights leaders in the 60s and 70s. Ali protested the Vietnam War, while Carlos made the Black Power salute at the winner’s podium during the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

These civil rights leaders garnered international attention for the issues going on in the country at the time, DeWalt said, but neither had the support of a company like Nike.

Nike amplifies Kaepernick’s message, he said.

“Not only does he have Nike, but other athletes, like LeBron James, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, who are global stars,” DeWalt said.

DeWalt doesn’t think of it as Nike profiting from the situation, he said, and it helps Nike get behind an athlete and justify the movement’s purpose.

“It was a really smart move by Nike,” DeWalt said. “It will definitely motivate brands to fall in line with Nike, supporting athletes that stand for something.”

The NFL and President Trump responded to Nike’s campaign shortly after release.

In a statement, Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said “the social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

In a tweet, Trump cited the NFL’s declining ratings and compared them to the criticism received by Nike.

‘Not a hard decision’

Jennifer Vardeman-Winter, a public relations professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, said social media is nearly everything.

“It’s where a lot of audiences are,” Vardeman-Winter said. “The attention span is shorter than it’s ever been before, but that’s where most advocates of any kind of issues are.”

Since social media has less regulations than other mediums, Vardeman-Winter said it gives groups the ability to call other people out.

“The ability of other people to make you feel stupid is kind of what holds people accountable,” Vardeman-Winter said.

There’s also an unprecedented amount of outside opinions, she said, where it’s OK to “be that jerk on social media.”

Kaepernick represents what Nike’s customer base believes right now, she said, and Nike wouldn’t spend money if they didn’t think they would make a profit.

In addition to their customer base, Verdeman-Winter said she thinks a lot of the decision makers are from the same demographics and share the same opinion on Kaepernick.

“I think, in this instance, it was not a really hard decision, because they knew it was going to be not only a good financial move, but it was going to be something they, as a company, believe in,” she said.

Nike wouldn’t pay out that money without a proven track record, she said. There’s a history of taking risk and doing work that brings them rewards.

Vardeman-Winter said the more they study the campaign, the less she thinks there was a huge risk of losing customers and the alignment of Nike’s brand with social issues isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Consumers are feeling that they want to not just pay more for a good product, they want to pay to a company that’s doing good,” she said.

Even though people posted negative feedback, she said Nike received more positive reinforcement.

“In the social media environment, even negative publicity like that is still an example that Nike is still relevant,” she said. “People still care enough to post about them even if it’s negative.”

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