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nike Love or hate those Kaepernick ads, the company knows just what it’s doing

September 8, 2018

Thomas Frank wrote a book, fairly early in his career, called “The Conquest of Cool.” It is brilliant. Nearly everything Thomas Frank does is brilliant.

In this book, he tells the history of advertising in the 1960s and 1970s and describes how Madison Avenue co-opted the counterculture: Hippies went from being dangerous threats to the established order, to becoming an army of paisley-draped folk singers, standing on a hillside, crooning about giving the world a Coke.

Frank argues that every time the establishment felt threatened, it turned the source of that threat — hippies, black nationalists, you name it — into salesmen. Threat neutralized.

This co-opting of perceived threat, this conquest of cool, takes all sorts of forms. A generation ago, an episode of “The Partridge Family” featured the “C’mon, get happy!” family stranded in innercity Detroit, where a booking mix-up had them scheduled to play for an audience expecting to see The Temptations. Encouraged by a fast-talking concert promoter (played, if you can believe it, by Richard Pryor), teen idol David Cassidy pens a new “urban” song.

The crowd goes wild. Large men in shades and berets, obviously Black Panthers, nod approvingly. David Cassidy heals the nation.

And before there was Eminem, Houston’s Jim McIngvale did Gallery Furniture commercials as “Rappin’ Mack” (“I’m Mattress Mack and I’m here to say, I really will save you money today!”) Once, in Provo, Utah, I saw a lanky white kid in topsiders and Bermuda shorts, wearing a Tupac t-shirt.

No corporation has been more relentless and more effective at co-opting countercultural symbols than Nike, the Oregon-based sneaker behemoth. Did I say sneakers? Nike isn’t a sneaker company. According to its website, Nike is a “sports innovation” incubator, whose mission is to “do everything possible to expand human potential.” That overpriced footwear comes with a heaping helping of hubris.

Nike doesn’t just co-opt culture, it creates a cult of personality around its pitchmen. Remember the deification of Michael Jordan in the 1980s? How about the heroic-sized billboard of LeBron James in Cleveland, his head bowed, his arms outstretched in some cheap approximation of the Crucifix? King James as savior in sweatbands! Lance Armstrong was a major star in the Nike panoply, the noble warrior, defeating cancer and winning races and Just Doing It. Then it turned out that Lance was a liar, a cheat and an all-around bounder, and he disappeared, removed from the swooshy Acropolis, written out of the history, the way Stalin expunged Trotsky from the Soviet records. It’s cynical and disgusting.

I’ve never owned anything bearing the Nike logo, not a pair of sneakers, not a T-shirt, nothing. Manchester City is my club and has been for nearly 20 years, long before their rise to international prominence.

I’ve got a closet full of Manchester City gear, everything from T-shirts to socks to team jerseys, but I haven’t bought anything since Nike became their shirt sponsor. Few organizations have done more to commodify our culture and skew our cultural priorities than The Ubiquitous Swoosh. I am not a fan.

Nike’s newest culture icon is Colin Kaepernick, the controversial quarterback behind the “take a knee” protests in the NFL. The Kaepernick ads are yet another chapter in Madison Avenue’s conquest of counter-cultural. The lighting and typeface are reminiscent of Barkley’s “I’m not a role model” ads from the ’90s. It’s atmospheric and in your face and about as sharp and edgy as a pair of kindergarten scissors.

Kaepernick, center, started kneeling during the national anthem in the 2016 NFL season to protest racial injustice.

They are not meant to stoke discussion. They are not meant to further debate. They’re meant to sell sneakers. And they will.

About 25 years ago, a bunch of anarchists in Oregon marked Nike as one of the agents of corporate hegemony. They vandalized Niketown, the showcase marketplace for all things swoosh. There is a famous photograph of one of these young firebrands, a bandana covering his face, his fist raised in triumph, standing atop a statue of the Nike logo.

On his feet? A pair of Air Jordans.

Be mad about Colin Kaepernick becoming a Nike spokesperson. Boycott. Burn some sneakers. Be outraged. Nike knows you’ll be back. What, you’re gonna start wearing Pumas?

Or get all excited about Nike becoming woke. Buy that merch to show your solidarity. Post your Instagrams, praising Phil Knight and the boys in Beaverton for their social conscience.

You’re deluding yourself. Corporations don’t have consciences. Corporations have products to sell. And Nike is using very powerful, very heartfelt feelings about the mistreatment of African-American citizens as a marketing tool. It’s so very cynical.

The media are reporting that the round-the-clock coverage of the Kap ads has given Nike $42 million in free advertising. Keep yelling. Keep cheering. Keep fighting online.

Nike has you right where they want you.

McMurray is a Houston businessman. This essay first appeared in Gray Matters.

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