Cashing In On Kaepernick:  A Visual Ideological Analysis of the Commodification of Racial Equity and Inclusion in Nike’s “Equality” and “Just Do It” Advertising Campaigns

May 4, 2020   /  

Student: Benjamin Ferling
Major: Communication Studies
Minor: Political Science
Advisors: Dr. Ahmet Atay, Dr. Melissa Weller

Benjamin FerlingThere are few better ways to acquire the attention & money from consumers than to present to them controversial images and advertisements. The purpose of this study was to analyze Nike’s “Equality” (2017), and “Just Do It” (2018) advertising campaigns, for strategies in an effort to commodify racial equity and inclusion. Several themes were uncovered and discussed throughout this research, such as the use of notable bodies, the cultivation of neoliberal advertisements through neoliberal rhetoric, the amplification of popular advertising strategy, and the coloring of advertisements. Because of this, this research expands the growing area of research on commodified social issues, as well as contributing to the growing area of study on the influence of modern capitalism on society and consumer culture. This research utilized a visual-ideological analysis, which aims to identify the ways in which Nike intervenes in a social controversy and converts racial equity and inclusion into a consumable good, or commodity.

Benjamin will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

52 thoughts on “Cashing In On Kaepernick:  A Visual Ideological Analysis of the Commodification of Racial Equity and Inclusion in Nike’s “Equality” and “Just Do It” Advertising Campaigns”

  1. How are you defining “neoliberal” here? I’m genuinely curious.

    It looks good, Ben! Congratulations on finIShing!

    1. Hey Nick, thank you for asking this! I’m super glad that this was the first question I got to answer. Neoliberalism, of course, did a lot of leading this study and I enjoyed reading all about it for this study to reach where it is today.

      For my study, I used David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism, to which he wrote “neoliberalism is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade” (22). Harvey is a valued scholar on issues of Marxism, neoliberalism, postmodernity and other really interesting works. Following Harvey’s definition, I additionally took influence from Wendy Brown, an incredibly valuable political theorist who writes extensively on the history & implications of neoliberalism (such as that citizens under neoliberalism are known as “homo economicus,” or strictly economic actors), as well as input from scholars Christian Fuchs & Laura Monticelli, who are featured prominently in my section on Communication Scholar’s Critiques on Capitalism & Commodification. Hope this helps!

      Thanks for your comment, Nick. I really appreciated our time together at Wooster! Congrats on FinIShing as well!

  2. Ben, this is an interesting study, and your passion for the topic comes through. One question: Some observers have said that Nike’s most loyal consumers skew young and liberal. Given that, are Nike’s inclusive efforts more about doing the right thing, so to speak, or about providing messages that their consumers will find appealing? Thanks for sharing your research!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Dr. Bostdorff! I’m so glad that audiences can feel my passion for this topic. I really appreciate your question as well, because I do think that although Nike takes advantage of having such a massive consumer base in general, they really do consider who their most loyal demographics are.

      Like I mentioned in my main takeaways from this study, I think that one way that Nike tries to revolutionize how corporations advertise is by being inclusive, or actually doing “the right thing.” One way that we can see this is in the “Use of Notable Bodies” section of my analysis (one of my favorite sections to work on!), which contains not only athletes and celebrities, but additionally those or diverse identities, which Nike certainly puts at the forefront of their advertisements. However, after conducting my research, a lot of Nike’s advertising strategies end up being incredibly similar to other traditional advertising strategies, which does make the ads seem like they are visually appealing more than anything else. I do believe that this is certainly a step in the right direction, however, and I hope that research like mine can bring attention to more ethical and inclusive advertising strategy. Thanks so much for your question!

  3. Congratulations, Ben! Very interesting subject with thorough research. What is next for you?? I am definitely going to miss you – you’ve been great on campus – so friendly and such a welcoming spirit!!! Until our paths cross – take care!

    All the best,
    Sandi

    1. Thank you very much, Sandi! I really appreciate your kind comments. I will miss our frequent encounters and always greeting you with a smile & wave.

      After graduation, I’m hoping to receive an internship or entry-level position in public relations, corporate social responsibility, social media strategy, corporate communications, or community affairs. I’m in the middle of the search right now!

      I’m super appreciative of our time together at Wooster! I’m looking forward to when our paths cross again soon.

  4. Congratulations on all your success this year, Ben. I enjoyed hearing about your project again, and wish you the best of luck in your ventures after graduation.
    Also, if you haven’t looked at the Steam-umm twitter account yet, check it out!

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Dr. Weller. I’m so thankful for my incredible experience in Interpersonal Communication, as well as receiving some awesome input from you throughout this Independent Study process. Your mentorship has been super impactful to me!

      I forgot to bring it up with you, but I did see the Steak-umm twitter, and that might be one of the most interesting Twitter threads I’ve ever read! I’m astounded by their follower’s response to Steak-umm’s comments on the current pandemic, seeing them as a “voice of reason” throughout all of this. I truly think that this would make for an awesome research project on social media relations!

    1. Thank you, Jenna! I appreciate all the support you’ve provided for me throughout out friendship, and I am so excited at the thought of being able to view the spectacular research you work on so soon!

    1. Thank you, Dr. Wong. I really appreciate you taking the time to check it out!

  5. Really amazing presentation Ben 4/4! I know as a basketball fan you definitely remember the FOX News quotation directed towards Lebron James of “Shut up and dribble”, wondering how you respond to someone who might say “Shut up and sell” directed towards companies taking the lead in social movements for not 100% pure reason of empathy/care (profits/erasing past failures regarding human rights/etc.). Why do you think it is overall a positive that they continue to enter into these movements/discussions and what do they need to improve to better justify their place there?

    1. Thank you, Gian! I appreciate you taking the time to check it out.

      I remember the “Shut Up & Dribble” incident like it was yesterday. While it’s incredibly valuable to the discourse we have on celebrities & social activism, it’s frustrating that there are individuals who try to restrict the voices of people as influential and inclusive as LeBron. There definitely are a ton of people out there who believe in a “Shut Up & Sell” mindset, and believe that corporations don’t have a place in most social controversies, since they’re really intervening in the controversy over anything else.

      This reminds me of a pretty cool conversation that I had with my second reader, Dr. Weller, during my oral defense. We discussed the concept of corporate social responsibility, which to me is really important. Dr. Weller had asked me why I think that Nike isn’t being socially responsible, but I believe that they were being socially responsible to an extent, however continuing to commodify racial equity and inclusion through their somewhat flawed advertising strategy. I also think that corporations can play a major role in discourse on social justice issues and movements, but there ought to be progress made toward how to do that ethically throughout their advertisements. One way that we can see this that has begun to become more prevalent is that corporations will donate a percent of their proceeds to a charity/non-profit that benefits marginalized communities related to their campaign. There are other additional steps that corporations can and should take, such as improving their internal corporate responsibility, by proving better resources and working conditions for the same people that their advertisements argue that they support/fight for. I hope this answers your question to an extent, I’d be happy to discuss with you in more detail! Thanks again!

  6. Hi Ben, I enjoyed reading and listening to your presentation – I had to “just do it” after hearing snippets on our virtual tours together 🙂 Your topic reminds me of mine in the sense that I think the presentation of different individuals in Nike’s campaigns ties in with how multi-ethnic individuals also express the need to see themselves in social media. Including more mixed people could be a new avenue for Nike to go into. Wishing you the best of luck post-grad, keep me posted on things!

    1. Hi Mia, thank you for your kind (and clever) comments! I greatly appreciate it. I’m super interested in this connection you’re making in our research! I wrote about it in detail in my “Amplifying Advertising Strategy” of my analysis, where I discuss that not only is Nike using diverse bodies to seem socially responsible, but additionally to provide visuality to multi-ethnic individuals in advertising campaigns in order to gain more consumption from them! Totally agree that including mixed people would be a route for Nike to explore moving forward!

      Thanks again for your comments, I’m wishing you well! Plus, I’m looking forward to our last few virtual tours together!

  7. Hi Nick: This was great to get a glimpse at the great amount of work you put into your IS project! Knowing you since our FYS and having you in several classes, it doesn’t surprise me that you have chosen a compelling question and tied in broader theoretical frameworks to understand it. It’s been fantastic to have been on a small part of your Wooster journey – and I wish you all the best in the future! Best, Prof. Bos

    1. Hi Dr. Bos! Thank you so much for taking the time to check out my research. It’s truly been an honor to know you and have you as a mentor in so many of my classes at Wooster (so glad it ended with Women, Power, and Politics too – one of my favorites at Woo!). Looking forward to when our paths cross again in the future! -Ben

  8. Hi, Ben, (Mom of a COW alum here). Fascinated to see the depth of your study, knowing that NIKE grew from humble beginnings in the garage of U of O coach Bill Bowerman as he used a waffle iron to make the first Nikes.

    Intrigued by your analysis of the ad photos.

    How would you rate Nike as a corporate citizen?

    OK, so you get hired as the CEO of Nike tomorrow! What is the first thing you would do?

    Enjoyed your interesting research–although I could never wear Nikes for distance running. Congratulations on a job well done! Best wishes!

    1. Hi there! Thanks so much for taking the time to view my research specifically! I greatly appreciate it. I’m incredibly interested in Nike’s history and how they came to be. I’m not sure if you’re watching the new ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan & the Chicago Bulls, but in the fifth episode, there was a lot of discussion on how Jordan originally didn’t even want to visit Nike for a meeting, but somehow they came away with a sponsorship deal. It’s really an interesting legacy that Nike’s created for itself.

      Thank you checking out my analysis. Watching the commercials & print ads repeatedly was really eye-opening, and one of my favorite parts of my research.

      If I were to rank Nike as a corporate citizen, I’d honestly rate them at near the top. While Nike has certainly had their shortcomings in relation to the “Equality” and “Just Do It” advertising campaigns, they’ve done a ton to promote their corporate identity while also giving back in pretty ethical ways, such as donating 32,000 sneakers to frontline healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 250,000 masks to the State of New York, currently with the highest case count in America (https://purpose.nike.com/covid-19-response-efforts).

      The thought of becoming the CEO at Nike? Insane! But, I would definitely take a look at some things to work on. First, I would provide better working conditions (including working locations and average hourly wage) and resources (increase & expand employee benefits to cover any and all preexisting conditions and mental health accommodations) worldwide. While it’s fantastic that Nike’s making these generous donations, they need to make the production side of it more ethical as well. This could be major steps in the right direction! Additionally, I’d take a look at the “Just Do It” campaign specifically. The “Just Do It” campaign that I examined is the most recent version of this campaign, that has been going on for decades now. This campaign really focuses on “doing” it, inspiring others to chase their dreams, no matter how extreme they might be. I’d try and donate portions from this campaign toward certain charities and nonprofits that provide students the funds to pay for pay-to-participate fees in sports or any other extracurricular organization they’re truly passionate about.

      Thanks again for checking out my research! I appreciate your fantastic questions and super insightful feedback!

      1. Hi, Ben, thanks for your thoughtful responses to my questions. You and all the other seniors I visited with today are the perfect examples of why I love IS Day. You are so enthusiastic, creative, and thoughtful and imaginative critical thinkers. You all give me hope for our country. I am delighted that you all could share your research with us today. Take care.

  9. Excellent presentation, Benjamin! How do you respond to critics who feel Nike is exploiting social justice causes to advance corporate interests/profits?

    1. Thank you for the question, Kevin, as well as taking the time to check out my research!

      In all honesty, I’d probably side with a lot of these critics, as my research question looks as the specific intervention and commodification of social controversies. It’s a truly genuine area of interest that seems to have become incredibly polarizing as of late. I do believe, however, that Nike does a good job in drawing positive attention to these issues and brings awareness about the issues that ought to be focused on today and now. It’s in their advertising execution, however, where Nike begins to become weak in their support and it starts to look like exploitation. I think that Nike, while having its issues in advertising strategy, did an effective job in taking the first crucial steps toward more ethical advertising and marketing. Thanks again for your question, I hope this helps!

  10. Great presentation Ben, your passion definitely shows. It was so interesting to hear a critical take on these advertisements; you made me consider a lot of points that I hadn’t before. Awesome work!

    1. Thank you, Anna! I greatly appreciate it.

      I really do believe that Nike is on to something here, and while they may have had their shortcomings in their endeavor to revolutionize advertising strategy, this is one of a few steps in the right direction in how corporations can properly market themselves in the space of social justice issues/movements.

      I’m glad you liked my work! Thanks again!

  11. Really interesting and very well presented Ben. Kudos! Thank you for taking the time to share your I.S. with us. So proud of you! Cheers!

    1. Thank you, Mel! I really appreciate you taking the time to check out my research. Thanks for all of your guidance and support over the years!

  12. Hi Ben,
    Congratulations on completing your I.S.! Wonderful presentation!
    Did you come across any research on how the fans have responded to Nikes ads and commercials promoting equality and social justice? Did you find that there were different reactions either positive or negative to Nikes “equality” and “just do it” commercials based on the fans of certain sports, such as fans of Basketball vs. Football or fans of Football vs Baseball?

    1. Hi Nora! It’s great to connect with you. I appreciate you taking the time to view my research, and I’m super glad you enjoyed it!

      Noticing some extreme consumer reactions to these advertising campaigns was one of the primary reasons as to why I became interested in this topic. Images and videos on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and more quickly showed the outrage (and genuine betrayal) many people felt from Nike’s advertisements (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/nike-colin-kaepernick-ad-just-do-it-protest-socks-nfl-trump-take-a-knee-a8522106.html).

      I did take a lot of time thinking about what types of groups reacted differently to these campaigns, and found generally two divisions. The first were those who identify as patriotic in a general sense and those who do not, since the backing of Colin Kaepernick has the historical and social implications of supporting someone who kneels for the United Stares flag and national anthem, thus not respected the values that other patriots have fought for. The second, however, was much more interesting. I found that die-hard Nike fans and casual/non-Nike fans was an interesting divide in my research. As previously mentioned, many Nike fans felt betrayed by seeing a corporation that they have supported for so long back someone whose ideas differ from theirs, and thus they decided to ruin their Nike gear.

      It would be interesting to see if there is a differentiating reaction from a more football-based demographic versus a basketball-based demographic, considering the “Equality” commercial starts with a group of boys playing basketball on a court, while also featuring NBA stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

      Thank you for your questions! I greatly appreciate it.

  13. Great and thorough presentation. Lots to think about. Nice Job Ben! Congrats!

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to check out my research. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Hi Ben! It’s clear that advertising (and Nike’s, specifically) has been an interest of yours LONG before your work on this project began. Very thoughtful and well-researched analysis! Great job!

    1. Hi Stephanie! It’s true that I have greatly appreciated Nike as a corporation, from their interesting origin story to the groundwork that they have put forth for an incredible legacy. Despite their shortcomings in these advertising campaigns, Nike ought to be noticed for the acts they’re brave enough to make that many other corporation won’t. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments. It truly means so much!

    1. Thanks so much! I’m glad to have you join me for my presentation today. I’m happy you enjoyed it!

  15. Excellent presentation! Enjoyed the takeaways and conclusions you came too. Interesting topic to intersect advertising, social issues and equality. Your passion clearly came through. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments as well as taking the time to check out my research, Christine. I’m really passionate about a topic like this, and I’m glad you enjoyed my takeaways. Thanks again!

  16. Well done, Ben! Thank you for sharing your work with us. Your topic was very interesting and your research was presented well. I’m going to miss seeing you in the office! Congratulations and best of you luck to you!

    1. Thank you so much, Trischa! I’m also going to miss interacting in the office. I always looked forward to getting to ask you “What’s up?” Thank you again for checking out my research, and I’m looking forward to when our paths cross again!

  17. Thank you to everyone who took some time to check out my research, it truly means the world to me. If you have further questions past 4:00 P.M. EDT, I’m happy to respond to them! You can also feel free to contact me at bferling@gmail.com to discuss further. Thanks again!

  18. Congratulations, Ben! This was an excellent presentation and a really interesting analysis of the imagery and its purposes, as well as its effects. I appreciate your sharing this, and am very glad to have a chance to learn a little about the work you have been doing all year!

    Wishing you all the best for the future.

    Pres. Bolton

    1. Thank you, President Bolton! I really appreciate you taking the time to check out my research. Thank you for all that you do for the Wooster community!

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