3 Controversies That Have Surfaced After Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Ad

When Nike revealed ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s casting in its “Just Do It” campaign early this month, the reactions came swift and sure.

Some took to social media to protest the sportswear giant’s move, burning their sneakers and cutting the Swooshes off their socks. Others commended the brand for taking a stand on a social issue that championed racial equality — one valued by its core demographic of Gen Zers and Millennials.

The debate around the groundbreaking ad even launched several controversies, including claims that Russian-backed accounts were involved in the call for a boycott of Nike products. And just this week, a New York Times report suggested the brand’s near-decision to cut ties with the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback last year, considering potential backlash from the NFL.

Here, FN breaks down the discussions that have surfaced following the ad’s release.

A Russian-propelled #NikeBoycott

There’s much talk about Russia’s influence in United States’ affairs. But in an ongoing investigation, data visualization company Graphika centered on the recent case of the ‘boycott Nike’ campaign, finding quantitative evidence that the online protests could be traced all the way to the Eurasian country.

Through its analysis, the firm discovered that accounts with known links to Russia’s disinformation campaign joined the protests, which were launched on social media by the ad’s critics. Although it wasn’t responsible for creating the boycott, the Russian accounts on Twitter reportedly helped further the reach of the #NikeBoycott hashtag, among others.

While it didn’t provide specifics, Graphika said the accounts were connected to known accounts tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a company that is alleged to have previously engaged in targeting the election process in the US. It added that the Nike boycott was given a boost by Trump supporters with online accounts, sharing that 66.1 percent of #NikeBoycott hashtags were used by pro-Trump accounts, based on an initial analysis conducted within hours after Nike named Kaepernick the face of its new ad.

“The ‘boycott Nike’ campaign is the latest example of how social media polarization has developed a commercial bite,” CEO John Kelly told FN. “More than ever, brands are at risk of being drawn into the political fray, where automated accounts amp up the controversy. Usually they are pulled in reluctantly, which is why it’s so interesting that Nike chose to walk this path by design.”

Partisan politics

Despite promoting a progressive message in its recent ad, Nike has reportedly historically thrown its money behind conservative candidates. That’s according to a recent analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics, which found that the company’s employees and political action committee have contributed more than three times as much money to the GOP ($424,000) versus the Democratic party ($122,000) in the 2018 election cycle.

The Washington, D.C.-based non-profit and non-partisan political research group added that the footwear behemoth has donated more to Republicans in every election season in the past decade, with the exception of 2008 and 2016.

Almost half of that spending reportedly originates from co-founder and chairman emeritus Phil Knight and wife Penny. A registered Republican, Knight chipped in $1.5 million to GOP candidate Knute Buehler’s campaign in his race for Oregon governor against incumbent Democrat Kate Brown, marking the largest single donation to a candidate in the state since it began tracking in 2006.

Standing by Kap

That said, Nike still pushed forward with the ad — but it wasn’t without its obstacles. Last summer, the company debated dropping the exiled football player from its roster of sponsored athletes, according to two anonymous sources cited in a New York Times report published on Wednesday. After all, the ad’s release risked kickback from the NFL, a partner with the athletic brand since 2012, and threatened to alienate some Nike customers.

However, as Nike stood by Kaepernick, so did its target market. Historically outspoken about social causes, the Swoosh saw skyrocketing online mentions and sales — as well as an all-time high in its stock. “Gen Z and Millennials will respect Nike doing this, and they are the core demographic for Nike,” Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with The NPD Group Inc., told FN this month. “Two-thirds of the people who wear Nike footwear in the U.S. are younger than 35. This is the generation we’re talking about. Nike is really speaking to their consumer here.”

On Tuesday, Nike reported that its Q1 profits increased 15 percent to $1.1 billion, or 67 cents per share, topping analysts’ forecasts of 63 cents per share. As of Sept. 28, Nike’s stock closed at $84.72.

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