It all started with a tweet on the afternoon of September 3rd, 2018.
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018
Kaboom. Not long after, the full commercial—timed to mark the start of the 2018/2019 NFL season and celebrating the 30th anniversary of the tagline “Just Do It”—lit up the cultural discourse like no ad had done in recent memory. People loved it. People hated it. People bought Nikes. People burned Nikes. People talked about it at home, at work, on the news. Everywhere.
It was divisive because it jumped on America’s biggest fault lines—race, patriotism, sports, and business. But according to Nike founder Phil Knight, that was kind of the point. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” Knight told Fast Company last year. “And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
As a piece of marketing, it helped galvanize those who had been preaching the word “purpose” already for years. That in a post-2016 world, brands—and subsequently their advertising—can’t afford to be neutral.
Nike’s results seemed to have backed that up. Despite Fox News and parts of the social mediasphere predicting the Swoosh’s downfall, the company claimed $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales.
One year later
Twelve months later, though, what can we say that we’ve learned from the whole thing? For one, brands who don’t back up their purpose-filled advertising with actual action risk getting significantly burned. Gillette invested millions into redefining its classic tagline “A Best A Man Can Get,” to have its own hypocrisy held up loud and clear within hours. Too many brands, before and since the Nike ad, have mistaken taking a stand on something in an ad as a substitute for actually taking a stand on something.
Nike is still no exception. Poetic posturing aside, the brand still fell short for athletes like Allyson Felix, who was forced to leave the brand over its pregnancy policy. Meanwhile, despite the success of having Kaepernick as the centerpiece of last year’s campaign, the brand hasn’t really utilized the unemployed QB since—unless you count the time he saved them from putting a problematic flag on a special-edition sneaker.
That may be the Kaep ad’s most damning legacy: that it was all just an ad. When Jay-Z and Roc Nation signed a deal with the NFL to help program halftime shows, the legendary rapper said it’s time to move on from kneeling to “more actionable items.” Spoken like a true marketer. Meanwhile, Nike’s most controversial spokesperson settled his lawsuit against the NFL but remains without a team.
Today marks the three year anniversary of the first time I protested systemic oppression. I continue to work and stand with the people in our fight for liberation, despite those who are trying to erase the movement! The movement has always lived with the people! ✊????
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) August 14, 2019
Two weeks ago, Kaepernick marked the three-year anniversary of his first on-field protest. His social post includes a video featuring footage of young black men being gunned down by police, those boys’ parents expressing both their feelings of helplessness and their appreciation to Kaepernick for using his voice to draw attention to the issue of police brutality.
It’s a poignant, two-minute distillation of why Kaepernick did what he did—and continues to do.
It didn’t feature a swoosh, and it didn’t need one.