What is the limit to the level of controversy an ad campaign can create? Well, Nike may have just raised the bar to a new height. Last week, Nike broadcasted their 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Kaepernick was once a star quarterback and Super Bowl runner up, but had seemingly disappeared from the national spotlight in recent years. That is until last season, when he began a movement of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The kneel was to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice against minorities, but many found it disrespectful to the nation and its armed forces. The protest sparked a fierce national debate with people both supporting and antagonizing him. Despite the controversy surrounding Kaepernick, Nike made the debatable choice to make him the face of their campaign. The athletic brand is no stranger to controversy in their advertisements and have released several campaigns featuring gender equality, religion, AIDS, and other important issues. Nike’s decision raises the question of corporations capitalizing off of important social issues, like this one.
In a time where the nation is very polarized, the campaign was faced with severe backlash. Many boycotted the popular athletic brand and refused to purchase anything from it, or even associated with it. People spread videos of burning and cutting Nike apparel and shoes using the hashtag “Boycott Nike”, which went viral. Some, including President Trump, used social media as an outlet to share their thoughts about the controversy. In his tweet, the President ridiculed and trashed the company for highlighting Kaepernick, and said that the ad “sent a terrible message.” Nike was in a tough situation as their stock dipped two percent following the day of the release. Although many consumers were furious, a large majority praised Nike for the campaign, saying it was brave and meritorious to bring awareness to the important social issue. Online sales spiked by 31 percent in the following days. This profit made up for far more than the previous stock loss. Many celebrities including Serena Williams, Michael B. Jordan, and Tom Brady, support the campaign and the message it stands for. Nike also gained a major boost on social media, gaining 170,000 more followers on Instagram and thousands of new likes on Twitter and Facebook.
Nike’s decision to support and stand with the controversial NFL player demonstrates its attempt to support the battle against racial and social injustice. Yet, many believe the company has not earned the capacity to fully do so, as the majority of the company board is comprised of white, male staff, which does not exactly embody the message they are trying to stand for. Nonetheless, Nike and its marketing team knew what they were doing prior to the ad release. Market research shows that 67 percent of Nike’s young customers, (ages 18 to 24) have a positive view of the Kaepernick campaign, while 21 percent opposed it. By taking a stand on social issues, Nike has raised awareness while also raising their profits. It is unclear whether other companies will take a stance like Nike has on important social issues, but it is certain that Nike has set a precedent for a controversial campaign that will keep people talking for years.