Just when the world thought traditional advertising was dead in the water and only pretty 25-year-olds on Instagram could sell stuff, Nike came along and reminded us why it is one of the most influential brands in the world.
Last week, Nike revealed Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign. The NFL star has become internationally recognised for his resistance to police brutality and racism in America, ever since he started kneeling during the national anthem at football matches as a means of peaceful protest. President Donald Trump has lambasted his actions and Kaepernick is currently suing the NFL, accusing teams of colluding to not hire him. The Nike advert features a close-up image of Kaepernick’s face, with the strapline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” A two-minute video narrated by Kaepernick, and featuring Lebron James and Serena Williams, was also released.
It is powerful stuff. And, while there are questions about whether true activism can be packaged and sold by a mega brand, especially one that’s currently facing a sexism suit and has a long history of workers-rights violations, it has the world talking. And reacting. A mayor in Louisiana tried to ban Nike from his city. Idiot people set fire to their Nike trainers (while still wearing them!). Nike had put itself slap bang in the middle of an explosive national conversation about race. It was brave and bold and it was political. It was having a cause, taking a side, making a statement. And it was a move far bigger than championing a famous football player.
And, just as I was stewing in the dilemma of still wearing a brand that has been accused by its female staff of being institutionally sexist, I came back round to thinking that I could forgive Nike. Yes, the cynical part of me wonders how much Kaepernick is a diversion and how they are using his very real struggle as a branding exercise, but, at least for now, once more, Nike remains a #problematicfave.
There’s a very loud, passionate conversation taking place among women right now. It’s laced through all of our lives. When will brands find the courage to be part of it?
But I just wish, so very much, with every single fibre of me that wants to spend money on things I don’t really need, that brands could talk to women in the same way. That brands would go out on a limb for women. That they would show the passion, purpose and politics that Nike just did. Nike made itself relevant when men started burning their Nike trainers. Women’s brands make themself acceptable, palatable, friendly. Brands are still performing outdated gender roles, while the rest of us have moved on. Brands with products for women go out of their way to never make anyone angry; like a numbing pinkwash of politeness, straight down the middle, grab as many of us as you can, making sure you don’t offend anyone and, in doing so, turning off everyone. I once worked with a brand whose product was made specifically for women. They sent me a list of things they didn’t want me to cover: it included Trump and Brexit. Why? Because a lot of brands still talk to women like it’s the 1950s.
There have been a couple of good adverts aimed at women that have really stuck out for me of lately. Organic Valley made this amazing piss-take of how women’s lives are presented in the media – it’s really worth a watch. And there’s this advert for a dairy co-op called Land O’Lakes about women in farming, which feels like it’s hit the right note. Both these ads show an engagement with the wider cultural conversation – but why won’t the industry go even further?
Why can’t there be a Boots-style Here Come The Girls ad, but instead of a bunch of women with Christmas party frocks and too much glitter, there’s a girl-squad slow-walk of some of the incredible, diverse women who are running for office in America right now, making history. You know who I want to see in advert? American TV actor Piper Perabo. Why? Because she got arrested for disrupting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's hearings, along with the brilliant Linda Sarsour. For their passion and commitment to women’s reproductive rights, I’ll have what they’re having! I’ll buy what they are selling! Because they are selling something real – they are selling belief and purpose and action. Where were the airlines sponsoring flights back to Ireland to vote in the Repeal the 8th referendum earlier this year? Where is the clothing brand offering coats to volunteers who help women enter abortion clinics amid the harassment of strangers – especially now that buffer zones have been rejected by the government.
There’s a very loud, passionate conversation taking place among women right now. It’s happening at every pub lunch or dinner party I go to. It’s on every podcast I listen to, it’s laced through all of our lives. When will brands find the courage to be part of it? When will brands start to see this for the opportunity it is? If you want our recession-hit, unequally distributed money, you have to earn it. Dare to stand up and say something. Dare to be angry. If brands want to talk to women, they’ve got to start talking like women.