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Believe in Something

So it seems Nike’s new 3oth anniversary ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is causing a bit of a stir today. Kaepernick is, of course, famous for his decision to kneel during the American national anthem before a football game to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Kapernick has been unable to land an NFL job since then. He is currently pursuing a grievance of collusion against the league and its owners who he says are keeping him out of the league because of their displeasure with his protests and his politics.

At any rate, the Nike campaign contains an image of Kaepernick with the following line:

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.

Predictably, this has had a rather polarizing effect (is there any other kind of effect that something can have in the digital age?) out there in the world—everything from breathless affirmations of celebrity support to people burning their Nike shoes or cutting the famous swoosh out of their apparel. Kaepernick’s anthem protests have been a lightning rod for a variety of issues in these politically charged days—everything from the nature of patriotism to racial justice to the limits of free speech—and this ad campaign certainly seems poised to ratchet things up another notch.

My interest, perhaps predictably, is with the line in the ad itself. Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. It sounds pretty courageous and admirable, particularly if you’re inclined to generally agree with Kaepernick’s politics, which I am. But of course, if we actually move beyond the emotions that the image and the words have been engineered to stir up in us and analyze the words themselves, things descend into incoherence rather quickly.

Believe in “something?” Like what? Anything? Alt-right white supremacy? That the earth is flat? That our chaotic cultural moment has been engineered by Russian bots? That professional football should be banned due to its contribution to brain injuries? That pro sports in general is an idolatrous expression of a cultural sickness? That polygamy ought to be allowed as a concession to individual freedom? That Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead? I’m guessing that there at least a few things that Nike isn’t terribly interested in people believing, no matter how much we’re willing to lose for believing them.

And what about the “Even if it means sacrificing everything” part? Surely, we don’t have to think too hard to come up with examples of people who have lost everything—even their very lives—for beliefs that we would not be anxious to validate. Suicide bombers come to mind as the most obvious example, but there are all kinds of people who have lost family, friends, money, status, jobs, reputations for believing in things that many of us would consider certifiably insane. Being willing to sacrifice everything for your beliefs isn’t  necessarily the most reliable indicator of the merits of said beliefs.

Believe in something, even if it costs you everything. Well, yeah, maybe. Sometimes. I guess it depends on the beliefs. The Nike ad is, of course, a symptom of the confusion that characterizes our cultural moment. Believe whatever you want as long as you believe it sincerely. And as long as it fits within the boundaries of what is deemed socially acceptable by the drivers of mass media. I suppose that’s a bit clunky for a billboard.

I’m probably expecting too much (accuracy and consistency) from an advertising campaign slogan. Nike is selling athletic apparel, for heaven’s sakes, not trying to pass an exam in an introductory logic course! Except, well, they’re not just trying to sell stuff. Advertisers shape and reflect public consciousness in ways many of us are probably barely aware of. So maybe it’s not so bad to occasionally take a step back and say, “You sure about that? Is that really what we want to say?”

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Virtue signalling elects governments and sells shoes. If pressed by your logic I’m sure Nike would back off from affirming any, “belief” that didn’t align with the political sensibilities of it’s shoe buying demographic.

    I think I shall offer a more reasonable proposition and suggest companies that sell wildly overpriced foot ware, while simultaneously preaching human rights at the same time they exploit third world cultures as sources of cheap labour, ought to get called on it. We ought to stop buying their shoes until they provide either them or us with dignified employment and a living wage. Stop buying Nike.

    Just do it.

    September 4, 2018
    • “Virtue signalling elects governments and sells shoes.” Yes, and much more besides, I’m sure!

      Your proposition seems eminently reasonable to me.

      September 6, 2018
  2. eengbrec #

    We can’t stop buying “Nike” shoes because Nike owns Converse and a few other no name brands. They are all the same, they pay shareholders, get shoes made in foreign countries, etc., etc. If we want to boycott them all, we would need to go barefoot.
    People are already showing pictures of customers burning their Nikes as a result of this ad.
    The NFL bowed down to POTUS and it didn’t help them, now they are stuck.

    September 4, 2018
    • Paul Johnston #

      I think the protest right now is playing into Nike’s long term strategy. It will be a mostly aging, don’t buy sneakers anymore, enemy as oppossed to winning an entirely new 20 something demographic that Nike isn’t doing aa well with as it has done in generations past. This is all about selling more shoes and exploits the social justice issue it pretends to defend.

      Nike’s real social justice positions are reflected in their exploitive treatment of their own workforce.

      It is hard to imagine Kaepernick being on the wrong side of history on this one and Nike is going, “all in” based on that reasonable assumption. Their long term projections must be dismal enough that they felt the need to take the risk.

      Sadly they have handed Mr. Trump another winning issue if he has the good sense to pivot. Forget the kneeling issue and attack Nike for its exploitive labour practices that at the same time denies americans jobs…a popular and winning agenda for this president.

      As for what people can/will buy and who they buy it from, if the mavens of Nike thought as you did, they would likely have done nothing. Why advertise at all if the buying public has no choice.

      Easy rule in our house, if a pair of sneakers cost more then $50, Mom and Dad don’t pick up the tab, you are on your own.

      If Mr. Trumps commitment to bringing jobs back to America, positions emerging economies and corporate interests such that they must provide living wages in foreign domains, as appears to be the case with the Mexican government and the auto industry there, he could go down in hustory as an agent for positive social change around the world.

      Now that would be an outcome worth advertising or “taking a knee on” depending on your point of view.

      September 5, 2018
  3. Thank you for breaking that down. The power of media and the way we just jump on the bandwagon w/o really thinking about what this means is crazy. Thanks

    September 5, 2018
    • Thank you, Susan.

      September 6, 2018
  4. mike #

    You made a really astute point here about Nike’s new slogan,Ryan. It’s funny because,without thought, I initially deemed it as really cool. Thanks for leading me back to sanity 🙂

    September 6, 2018
    • Thanks, Mike 🙂

      September 6, 2018
  5. Paul Johnston #

    If the material outcomes are our priority, then believe in something. If love and the relationships born of it matter most, then believe in someone.

    September 8, 2018
    • Succinct. And true. Thank you, Paul.

      September 9, 2018

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