Last month, Nike released a new series of ads promoting a theme of diversity, inclusion and activism. Among the many faces for the campaign were Hijab-wearing Muslim athletes, disabled athletes and various male and female athletes of color. Activist and athlete Colin Kaepernick performed a monologue for a video advertisement and was one of several athletes who served as the face of the ad campaign. Kaepernick is a football player, formerly for the San Francisco 49er’s, and an outspoken activist who is famous for kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games during the 2016 season. Kaepernick says he did this to protest police brutality and institutionalized racism faced by black Americans. As a result of his activism, Kaepernick has become one of the most divisive figures in American society. He has been demonized by the right –– including our current president –– and lauded by the left and activists communities. The ramifications of his activism have left him blackballed from the NFL, as he remains an unsigned free agent for the second year in a row. However, Kaepernick proudly and vocally continues his activism by donating and raising money for organizations working with oppressed communities. The fact that a large corporation decided to to show unabashed support of Kaepernick sent a powerful message regarding which stance on this issue will place you on the right side of history. Although Nike’s ad diluted his message slightly –– there is never any explicit mention of police brutality or the Black Lives Matter movement –– they did give Kaepernick the foundation of a stronger platform on which to further build his message.
Obviously there is something to be said about the negative implications of activist causes relying on publicity by corporations. Relying on corporations to legitimize a message of activism gives the power of their message to someone who already wields a tremendous amount of power and may misuse it. Most institutions and companies –– from clothing lines, to media production companies, to institutions of higher learning –– cross the line in the commodification of activism from allyship and amplification to exploitation. The commodification of activism by a myriad of companies has resulted in the exploitation of religious minorities, racial minorities and the LGBTQIA+ community. Corporations pride themselves on achieving the minimum acceptable standards for diversity and inclusion through blatant pandering to minority groups. These corporations do so in such a way that burden many minority groups with an obligation to support the institutions that were “brave” enough to go against the grain and make these minorities visible. They must do so by spending their money and consuming their content so that corporations that are “on their side” survive. What makes this so truly exploitative is that in almost every instance, virtually every executive, advertising team and consultant — anyone that would make money off of this inclusivity — is straight, white and male.
However, Nike’s ad campaign celebrated diversity and activism in a tasteful and respectful manner that should be applauded. If anything, Nike has lost business as a result of the principled stance they have decided to make and it is clear that they were willing to pay the price in order to express support for a person and cause they believed in without over-politicizing their brand. To this extent, the commodification of activism can actually prove beneficial for activists and their cause.