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Nike just did it and made Colin Kaepernick the new face of its iconic ad campaign

Andy Uhler Sep 4, 2018
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Colin Kaepernick receives the SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award during Sports Illustrated 2017 Sportsperson of the Year Show at Barclays Center in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

It’s a simple ad, just a picture and a couple lines of copy. But the way people are feeling about it — not simple at all.

The person pictured is Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback at the center of a protest movement over the shootings of unarmed black men by police. The words superimposed over Kaepernick’s face: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It.” The advertiser, of course, is Nike. 

The quarterback, who once led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, is now best known as the guy who knelt during the playing of the National Anthem. And as the guy who sued the league for keeping him unemployed ever since.

The athletic-wear company’s ad, unveiled first by Kaepernick in a tweet, celebrates the 30th anniversary of its iconic ad campaign. The Kaepernick ad has provoked protest across the country. Some posted images and videos of themselves burning Nike gear.

#NikeBoycott became a top trend on Twitter. President Donald Trump, a vocal critic of those who kneel during the anthem, said the ad sent a “terrible message.”

But the reaction wasn’t all negative.

Some big names have come out in support of Nike’s move, including basketball star LeBron James and tennis great Serena Williams, both of whom will be part of the 30-year anniversary “Just Do It” campaign as well.

What motivated Nike to unleash such a striking ad? It’s a business decision.

“You don’t do this without thinking it through,” said E.J. Schultz, Chicago bureau chief for Ad Age magazine. “It was pretty obvious the reaction they were going to get, and lo and behold, they got that reaction.”

Nike made a calculation that its ad would be good for business, said Terence Moore, a sports columnist and commentator.

“When you’re talking about an entity like Nike, everything that they do is going have finance, profit and money at the forefront, and then it’s going to be everything else,” he said. 

The Kaepernick “Just Do It” ad is designed to appeal to young people, said Jessica Ramirez, a retail analyst at Jane Hali and Associates.

“Most consumers that are millennials or Gen Z, when you’re trying to target them right now, anything that will attract them is: ‘Who do you stand behind?’” Ramirez said. 

According to the NPD Group, two-thirds of people who wear Nike are under 35. But there is more to consider than just who is buying sneakers at the mall.

“The NFL actually has a contract with Nike to supply uniforms for all 32 teams and other paraphernalia,” columnist Moore said. “Nike is a partner with the NFL.”

Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing business Metaforce, said there are probably some interesting conversations happening between Nike and the NFL because it’s unclear whether Nike gave the league a heads up on the ad before it dropped.

“I’m sure the NFL feels there was a relationship break here,” Adamson said. “The NFL’s thinking, ‘You should have FYI’d us so we didn’t wake up on Labor Day to get slammed.'” 

The NFL did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but released a statement late Tuesday: 

“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

Nike said it will produce new Kaepernick apparel, including shoes and T-shirts, in the coming months.

Nike stock was down 3 percent when markets closed on Tuesday.

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