Muhammad Ali didn’t fight once from 1967 to 1970. A conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, he was denied a boxing license at every turn. His unwavering commitment to what he believed in was polarizing, controversial, and deeply unpopular with a majority of the US of A. It made him a villain — until it made him a hero.
Perhaps we forget the wilderness he was relegated to during the prime of his athletic youth. One quote in particular stands as a devastating reminder of how things were during those supposedly idyllic years of American history (when commercials looked like this):
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” He continued; “This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars.”
Now imagine a black and white portrait of Mr. Ali with a simple caption reading, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Not at all controversial in 2018. And yet...
There’s something supremely discomforting about the analysis of Nike’s new campaign, which seems to come back again and again to the calculated financial risk they took supporting Colin Kaepernick. Even TMZ has weighed in on Nike’s marketing strategy, posting a breakdown of customer demographics that reminds us that Nike’s average buyer is younger, more diverse, and “less likely to be Republican” than the general population. As an analyst for NPD clinically put it, “Management knows its American consumer well.” I’m sure they do.
But what if this wasn’t just a cost–benefit analysis by cynical marketing executives? What if this was a visible and powerful demonstration of a brand in the modern era continuing to stand for what it stands for? The campaign is a celebration of standing for something, of commitment to core values, of believing what you believe in spite of the consequences.
It’s funny to use Nike’s present demographic map as justification for their decision to double down on Kaerpernick, since they pioneered supporting black athletes with well-rounded deals at a time it was simply not done. They were a lucrative-if-niche-ish running company from Portland when they signed Michael Jordan in the mid-80’s, developing an exclusive brand around him, while competitors like Converse and Adidas avoided similarly “controversial” contracts.
I bet their purchasing data looked a little different then.
Now that Nike’s stock has hit an all-time high and the fever about folks slicing up or incinerating their products has broken, the narrative is shifting to a celebration of how their advertising gambit worked. I’d like to humbly submit that this was no gambit, no opportunistic stunt. Nike has never wavered on defining and redefining the meaning of “Just do it.” They are successful and loved precisely for their consistency in doing what they believe to be right, whether that dovetails with popular sentiment or not. (See their first ad with Tiger Woods after his personal scandals. Or just watch any of their marquee commercials from the past 30 years.)
The brilliance of their tagline has been its ability to evolve with the times, to connect to a universal human desire, a tenacious spirit many of us try to nurture in ourselves. We are all flawed, we all must fight, and that’s never, ever easy. If you separate this campaign from a singular moment, a moment when we’re trying to figure out how to identify fact from fiction as technological rabbit holes silo us into self-reinforcing factions, you see a different campaign.
50 years from now, I hope those who facilitated some of our most difficult cultural conversations will be celebrated for the progress they helped make possible—brands included. When mainstream companies weigh in on complex socio-political issues, they can actually legitimize and catalyze more conversation and more change. Done well, it’s an accelerant.
We keep hearing how important it is to millennials for brands to stand for something. This is what it looks like when they really do.
Chris Sojka is the chief creative officer of Brooklyn advertising agency, Madwell