It seems like a lifetime ago. Well, at least a sports marketing lifetime. Back in 2013, Beats by Dre launched a provocative new ad starring then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick getting yelled at by a mob of thinly disguised Seattle Seahawks fans. As one of the first ads in the brand’s “Hear What You Want” campaign, it’s a fun spot about how one pro athlete blocks out the noise. But today, in 2017, it takes on significantly more weight.
Look at the anger and fury in some of those fans’ faces. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A year ago, Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem. This past weekend, many NFLers did the same after President Trump implied that anyone who does so is an unpatriotic “son of a bitch,” and told fans to boycott the NFL if the league wouldn’t force the players to stand. His comments set off a sh*tstorm–even conservative NFL commentators spoke out against the President.
Even *Republican* sports figures are turning against Trump for bashing ‘son of a b*tch’ NFL players pic.twitter.com/qe8sUY3yxt
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) September 25, 2017
One of Beats by Dre’s biggest athlete pitchmen also took a strong stand. LeBron James took to Twitter, calling the President “U Bum” after Trump criticized the Golden State Warriors for declining his invite to the White House, and spoke in support of the NFL players.
Where is Kaepernick? Currently not employed by any of the NFL’s 32 teams, in what many are calling a blacklisting by the league’s largely conservative owners. Just as apt a question, as NFL sponsor boycotts are being tossed about on all sides of the debate, where is Beats? The brand was acquired by Apple about six months after the Kaepernick ad aired, but continued its “Hear What You Want” campaign into 2015, with a collection of athletes that included NFLers Richard Sherman and Von Miller. In October 2014, Kaepernick actually took a stand on behalf of the brand–wearing its products while on NFL duty, despite Bose being the official NFL sponsor–and was fined $10,000 for it.
Beats hasn’t worked with Kaepernick since long before his original protest last year, and its more recent NFL-related ads feature guys like Tom Brady and DeShaun Watson. The company hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.
Last year Jimmy Smith, chairman and CEO of Amusement Park Entertainment, told AdAge that he didn’t think Beats by Dre would officially drop Kaepernick for any of the negative attention his protest drew.
“It would be hypocritical for a brand like Beats to drop him because they have a guy like Dr. Dre, who actually did a record called ‘F*** the Police,'” said Smith. “The roots of that brand is Dr. Dre and Dr. Dre is a rebel from all the way back in the day. He knows all about protesting what he feels is injustice. I would be surprised if Beats drops him.”
Forget dropping him — if anything, Beats by Dre should sign him back up for active duty. Back in March, a Fast Company feature outlined a few different strategies for brands in the age of Trump, and all of them rely on brands knowing what they stand for and acting accordingly.
Back in 2015, then-Beats CMO Omar Johnson (who left the company late last year, with Jason White stepping in as global head of marketing) told me about the brand’s approach advertising. That they relished the places many brands feared to tread. “The whole concept of truth and authenticity is easy to say, and it’s in a lot of marketing decks, but so many brands are actually afraid of the truth,” Johnson said. “Truth has a little dirt on it, it’s not always clean or politically correct.”
Beats is a brand that’s built so much of its image on being a rebel, often through pro athletes lionized as inspirational yet controversial icons. What better ad would there be for them today, than one from 2013?