In 1987, Nike debuted its most iconic ad – a black-and-white series of quick cuts of marathoners, weight-lifters and Michael Jordan sweating over the soundtrack of the Beatles’ Revolution.
The 30-second clip didn’t make sense, as such. But I can still remember seeing it for the first time and thinking, “I have to get some Nikes.”
It may have been the first modern example of a single spot disrupting an entire industry. From that point on, established entertainers were freed to become sellouts.
There was one problem – Nike hadn’t asked the Beatles for permission to use their song.
In the resultant lawsuit, George Harrison huffed that, in future, art might be used to peddle everything from “women’s underwear” to “sausages.”
He was right, but what he failed to see was that Nike wasn’t selling running shoes. Not entirely. It was selling an idea.
Some people were inside, part of the machine, and some were outside, just doing it. Your sneakers alerted fellow travellers to which side you were on.
Having made its point, Nike also sold out. A company that started out of the trunk of a car is now worth about US$130-billion. It’s the official haberdasher of the NBA, the NFL and every earthling who wants to fool their friends into thinking they work out. These days, your parents are as likely to own a pair of Nikes as your children are.
For a company born out of a Sixties-inflected, stick-it-to-the-man tribalism, that is not a very cool place to find yourself. It’s hard to be in the kicking-the-system business when you are running the system.
Then, just as Nike needed him, Colin Kaepernick wandered into the frame.
Since being put on the National Football League’s blacklist in 2017 for taking a knee during the national anthem, Kaepernick has become the most famous unwillingly retired retired athlete since Muhammad Ali. The cross-generational symbolism has not been lost on anyone, including, apparently, Nike.
Kaepernick was one of hundreds of pros on the Nike roster when his career was still a going concern. On Monday, the sports giant announced it was reupping him as the focus of its impending 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign – the one the Beatles and Jordan spurred.
According to The New York Times, Kaepernick’s new Nike deal “will rival those of other top NFL players.”
The initial tag line of the campaign – “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” – has gone screaming across the marketing sky. Some things are big hits, and other things are moments in time. This is the latter. It went over like the Bat-Signal for iGen – “To the ramparts. But first, the mall.”
Of course, Kaepernick hasn’t sacrificed “everything,” any more than John Lennon was calling for an honest-to-God insurrection with Revolution. He made many millions playing football. He’ll make millions more fronting the resistance. If only Che Guevara knew how well the revolutionary business would eventually pay.
But, in the same way the Nike/Beatles mash-up signalled the sports-equipment business was moving out of the gym and into your everyday life, this new partnership shows us that Nike is going postsports. The new face of the brand doesn’t play one.
The NFL did not offer immediate comment to the news. Most write-ups used words such as “annoyed” to describe the league’s presumed reaction.
I’d be feeling something a little more intense. “Terror” might cover it.
Nike did not make its billions because its products are ultrawicking or have superior arch support. It did it by trending just ahead of the popular mood – not setting the tone so much as confirming it. In so doing, Nike has become arguably the most successful incorporated tastemaker of our times.
Given a choice between A) Keep on keepin’ on with the partners who paid for our yachts, or B) Shift over to the rebel camp (current population: 1), they chose B).
Were I the side getting thrown over the side, that would alarm me. Up to and including existentially.
By Tuesday morning, the United States cultural essentialists had taken the field to fight back against the Reds. A boycott hashtag was established. The right (i.e., wrong) sort of people lost their minds. Nike shares fell a couple of percentage points in the early going.
This is no setback. It’s part of the advance.
Nike must understand that putting Kaepernick’s face on the company flag will upset a segment of its market. That would be the middle-aged and older segment, the couch-riding segment and the Big Bang Theory-DVR’ing segment.
That is to say, the deeply, deeply uncool segment.
Alienating customers will cost Nike in the short term, but a company this large with a product this ubiquitous does not survive by being monolithic. It must give off the impression of taking risks, without actually taking many. That’s what keeps the kids interested.
Given their choice of front man, Nike is also putting the NFL and its fans in the dork slice of the consumer pie chart. The real revolution happening here is how far football has fallen in public estimation, and how fast.
A couple of years ago, it was unsavoury. Last year, it became an enemy of right thinkers and the young. This year, the league is a laugh line. It’s something to be openly taunted.
Along with posting inspirational quotes on Facebook and excruciating their grandchildren by dancing the Floss, caring about football is becoming something the olds do for fun.
If he wasn’t already, this makes Kaepernick the most consequential athlete of his time. Largely alone, he went to war with an American institution.
He didn’t strike the hardest blow (that would be revelations about chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or the last one (that is still well into the future, if it ever comes). But he’s winning. Nike just proved it.
The Globe and Mail, September 4, 2018