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Something for Nothing

The high-formalist branding of Nike’s Kaepernick campaign

Over Labor Day weekend, the soundman for a third-tier country act slashed the logos off his socks in response to a multinational corporation signing an endorsement deal with an out-of-work football player best known for protesting police violence. This word assemblage, which reads like gibberish even if you get the cues, was the latest flashpoint in the never-ending culture wars. Colin Kaepernick was run out of the NFL because of his anti-racist activism; he’s still arguably the sport’s most popular player, in spite of not having played for two-plus seasons. He’s also the designated nemesis for MAGA types still fuming over the wave of anti-American kneeling he loosed upon the league.

Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick in its upcoming sneaker campaign set off shockwaves throughout the world of sports and beyond. Reactionaries like Ben Shapiro and Clay Travis (a huckster who has carved out a niche for himself as the right’s go-to sports guy) were predictably aghast; non-notables like the Big and Rich soundman and a few randos on Twitter who burned their shoes, tried to stick it to Nike as if post facto boycott were possible. Ridicule taking aim at their misguided protests swamped social media—to the point that this meta-reaction nearly overshadowed the ad’s positive reception by pretty much everyone sympathetic to Kaepernick or his cause.

The ad itself is a fascinating piece of communication whose implications speak volumes. It’s spare—a black and white photograph of Kaepernick’s face emblazoned with the copy “Believe in something. Even it means sacrificing everything.” Kaepernick’s mere image alongside what is otherwise fairly boilerplate Nike-speak in the “Just Do It” vein is catnip to his supporters and an affront to conservatives. There is, at present, no reason for any company to endorse him as an athlete, which means that Nike (which has had him under contract all along) is forking over a hefty payday, a shoe, and potentially a line of apparel to someone on the basis of his activism. In the most simplistic branding terms, this decision means that social justice work is good, and its critics are therefore bad. Nike has trained the spotlight on Kaepernick when it could’ve easily remained silent.

But it’s just as instructive to look at what the ad didn’t say. It cosigns the Nike brand to Kaepernick’s determination and integrity, not the substance of his “something”—which, by his own admission, evolved over time as he gained a more sophisticated understanding of politics and activism. His message, which is perhaps best described as an inchoate structural critique of racist violence, is wholly absent; we have to settle for generic motivational copy that could easily apply to sports, or any other demanding endeavor off the field. It is impossible to agree or disagree with the ad. Nike pointedly does not decry white supremacy, police violence, the carceral state, or environmental racism—all themes Kaepernick has touched on via his public statements and charitable work. Much like the “Equality” campaign from last year or the much-praised utterances of LeBron James, its premier athlete, Nike here demonstrated clear limits to just how far it is willing to go.

In the context of the charged psychic minefield of brand symbolism, the embrace of the Kaepernick ad as an unconditional triumph is a gesture of self-preservation.

Kaepernick is such a polarizing figure that a backlash was inevitable; Nike almost certainly had anticipated it and decided that the benefits of featuring him outweighed the downsides. The ad is provocative—but it’s a mistake to call it “brave” or “risky.” Nike knew exactly how much it stood to gain and lose and acted accordingly. It won’t explicitly mention what Kaepernick stands (or, ahem, kneeled) for—and to note this glaring omission isn’t to condemn the ad or its champions. It’s just worth noting that there’s only so much said here. You can go half-full, and be happy this is happening at all; there’s been some befuddling “yeah Kap, get paid!” sentiment, as if one individual’s windfall is a win if that person professes certain ideological leanings. And the allied sentiment in such discussions—holding, in essence, that “it’s easier to work with corporations unafraid to take sides”—presumes that Nike is actually going out on a limb. Still, the sheer gravity of seeing Colin Kaepernick in a major advertising campaign is huge. It shows, if nothing else, that he simply refuses to go away—and in at least this one case, a corporation is willing a play a role in heightening his visibility.

At the same time, there are some entirely valid reasons to be skeptical of Nike’s involvement here and this perspective has been markedly absent from the conversation. That the ad has been uncritically embraced says a lot about how credulously people interact with corporations these days. And this reflects a broader, informal social contract that governs much of our political and cultural discourse these days—the cold reality of what corporations represent, how they function, and what drives them has become eclipsed by the far more relatable, and pliable, notion of the consumer brand.

If corporations come off as sinister and oppressive, brands convey a message that’s relentlessly personable and accessible. We’re haunted by the aloof, godlike specter of corporations whenever we pay our bills or contemplate our election-season choices; we engage with brands on a daily basis, allowing them to define us even as we reciprocally try to define their uses and significations. And perhaps most essentially, we ascribe meaning to them apart from what they actually are. In what one might term the Citizens United style deregulation of commerce in our psyches, we relate to brands as if there were an ideology, agency, and governing sentiment underlying them. Brands are companions, friends, and allies. The alternative—that we’re all dupes incapable of imagining a life not circumscribed by our relationship with these entities—is absolutely grim and raises all sorts of difficult questions in its own right.

Viewed in the context of the charged psychic minefield of brand symbolism, the embrace of the Kaepernick ad as an unconditional triumph is a gesture of self-preservation. The current state of debate surrounding putative loyalty to the national anthem and the NFL—both patriotic brands cultivating a similarly charged sort of signification among a very different consumer demographic—requires us to interpret the Nike-branded message as a token of  progress because otherwise we would have to admit how cut off we are from any real version of dissent or meaningful opposition. Our own capacity to trust Nike belies an underlying sickness that we would rather not address. That we are okay with a politics mediated by brands puts the onus on us—which is to say, where it should ultimately belong. Unless Nike stuns everyone by expanding its partnership with Kaepernick to the point of adopting his worldview to influence corporate practices, we should view these efforts neutrally. Having Kaepernick around is good for the discourse; but our own ready inclination to pat Nike on the back for the culture-war troubles it’s now fending off largely by design points to some disquieting truths about ourselves.

Being pro-Kaepernick doesn’t require you be anti-capitalism. Nor does seeing value in the ad make you a sinister sell-out. Ideally, though, the ad’s appearance can serve as a teachable moment, burnishing Nike’s and Kaepernick’s respective brands while highlighting the consumer psychology at work in establishing and cultivating our loyalty to consumer brands: their agendas, their putative virtues, or their capacity for political action. Corporations wield real power. But brands are a figment that we feed every day—and if we ever we plan to reckon with them, we must also truly reckon with ourselves.