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When best intentions and big business collide
Nike shoes - Puddle Jump

When best intentions and big business collide

Colin Kaepernick had the best intentions for his Nike campaign – but there’s nothing moral about promoting big business. When […]

Person jumping wearing nike trainers beside puddle and buildingsColin Kaepernick had the best intentions for his Nike campaign – but there’s nothing moral about promoting big business.

When you buy a pair of trainers or choose a bank, be honest – do you stop and consider what the company stands for? From Roger Federer to David Beckham and Serena Williams, successful athletes, footballers, and tennis stars are all the key weapons in the battle for our cash, selling a myth that aligning ourselves with them will enhance our dreary lifestyles.

Brands are sneaky – they know that beautifully-filmed, high-profile sportspeople with hip soundtracks will catch our attention, but the blatant hard sell needs to be sugared with a dash of ethical content, a secondary message that implies you’re buying more than a product, you’re signing up to a philosophy – a notion which I have always found ludicrous.

Surely, it’s all just about business.

In an age where we have too much of everything – even designer Stella McCartney once said: “fashion is swamping the planet” (but she hasn’t stopped production) – how do you sell trainers and sportswear to people who already have enough to last a lifetime?

Nike are causing a storm in America with their choice of Colin Kaepernick to front their latest campaign, celebrating 30 years of the “Just Do It” slogan. Kaepernick is the NFL footballer who decided to kneel during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice and the numerous examples of white policemen treating African-American citizens not just violently, but with utter disrespect. Since then, his career has suffered; he’s been dropped by his team and trash-talked by everyone from the president downwards. Trump said that the athlete’s protest was “disrespectful” and that he found “it hard to watch unless they stand for the FLAG”.

In the new Nike ad, Kaepernick stares at the camera, with his face overlaid with the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. Trump once called players who kneel “sons of bitches” and it has cost Kaepernick dearly – he is suing the NFL (which represents 32 teams), accusing them of conspiring not to give him a contract.

Kaepernick is a huge hero to thousands of young people – and even when he was dropped as a player, his jersey was one of the NFL’s best selling items. His protest is a real generation divider in the USA, where huge numbers of people under 35 – who make up the majority of Nike’s customers – reckon he’s a brave warrior. Older men (in particular) find his protest repugnant and unpatriotic, and are determined that sport should not be tainted by politics.

Nike release “Just Do It” advert, voiced by Colin Kaepernick

These die-hard purists seem to have forgotten the black power salutes at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City,  50 years ago next month. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 metre sprint, wore black leather gloves and black T-shirts, obscuring their USA official kit at the awards ceremony. The athletes also took their shoes off to signify poverty, and raised their fists high in the black power salute during the national anthem. They were booed, and worse. For Carlos it was “a moment of truth”, when he could show the world the shame he felt at the slow progress of racial equality in the USA. Both subsequently explained that they felt no hatred towards their national flag, but their strong sense of social injustice suffered by millions of compatriots, outweighed sticking by official Olympic rules.

Surely that astonishing protest carries a lot more weight than a glib ad sponsored by Nike? Kaepernick – who announced his involvement on social media – has generated something like $43m worth of free publicity for a company whose working conditions for women have been criticised in The New York Times. Two women have filed a lawsuit citing sexual harassment and pay discrimination. So how does that play with another Nike star, Serena Williams – a heroic figure in the world of women’s sport? She quickly tweeted her approval of the ad, but she’s been busy heavily promoting another big business – banking.

Since day one, the US Open has been punctuated with hundreds of ads for one of the main sponsors, Chase Bank, featuring Serena and her daughter Alexis. Reciting the words to LL Cool J’s classic “Mama Said Knock You Out”, she plays with her baby, then reluctantly heads to training and finally stares down at the camera followed by the slogan #ThisMama.

According to the agency, it’s a message of empowerment for mothers of all backgrounds. Serena is an inspirational figure as she fights for her 24th Grand Slam title in the final, less than a year after giving birth, but her ad is all about persuading working women and mothers to bank with Chase, not play tennis better.

I can see why Kaepernick was tempted by Nike – huge exposure, plenty of airtime, and probably very good money. But his simple and very strong message has been hijacked in the process. Williams doesn’t do working women any favours either with all that baby guff. We don’t need her to help us find a decent bank.

This article was first published in The Independent.