Editorial | Just business, nothing personal

Editorial | Just business, nothing personal

Just how profound is a decision to buy a new T-shirt or a pair of basketball shoes?

Businesses usually try to avoid controversy when they hire advertising representatives — they want to appeal to, not alienate, their customer base.

But in a daring reversal of the usual script, the Nike corporation is embracing the opposite approach.

The face of the company's new "Just Do It" marketing campaign is former pro quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked protests throughout the NFL by leading players' efforts to kneel during the national anthem.

The display was, according to Kaepernick, designed to protest police brutality against members of minority groups. But any protest that targets the American flag will inevitably be interpreted as an attack on the American flag.

To call Kaepernick's method of protest ill-conceived — his message was overwhelmed by his tactic — does not do credit to the massive public blow-back against the National Football League and many of its players.

Unlike NFL owners and league Commissioner Roger Goodell, Nike has concluded that there's money to be made in embracing Kaepernick's rebel image and all that it entails.

Is there? Dollars will tell the tale.

Nike has had so many marketing successes, it would be foolish to bet against the company. Then again, the soft drink executives who came up with "New Coke" thought they were geniuses, too, and they were until they suddenly weren't.

That's why Nike's move represents a roll of the dice.

Protests against the Nike campaign and Kaepernick were immediate. Its stock price dropped, although it's bounced back a bit. Disillusioned customers made public displays of burning their Nike merchandise.

But that's for show — the real test will be in the cash, all major corporations really care about, Nike will or won't generate with its advertising campaign.

One thing, however, is for sure. Kaepernick, now a classic anti-hero, at least in Nike's opinion, has become the best-known backup quarterback in the history of the NFL.

He has a multiyear contract with Nike and a pending grievance against the NFL for allegedly colluding in a decision not to sign him. Kneeling in an ill-defined protest may be the best career move he ever made.

Whether owners colluded against him will have to be decided on the basis of the evidence. But it would be no surprise if individual owners decided that, given hostile fan reaction, he was a backup who is too hot to handle.

There's another aspect of the Nike campaign — aside from Kaepernick — that merits discussion.

One of the campaign's slogans reads, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

The import of what is presented as a prophetic message merits further examination.

"Believe in something," as in anything, whatever it may be. All deeply held beliefs are equal, and they are all the more admirable if the holders of these undefined beliefs are willing to fight to the end for them, whatever the stakes.

Some of the greatest butchers of the 20th century — Hitler, Stalin, Mao — would certainly agree. They certainly believed in something, and they were willing to sacrifice millions of lives to make their most deeply held beliefs become reality.

It would be a mistake, of course, to expect too much of the catchy slogans corporations employ to move merchandise. Slack-jawed teens aren't likely to think too much about them as they weigh sneaker purchases.

Then again, this one is so superficial that its encouragement of dogmatic, narcissistic thinking openly invites ridicule, something one would think Nike would hope to avoid if it wants to sell more shoes.

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