November 15, 2018
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Nike bet that politics would sell. Looks like it was wrong.

Eric Risberg | AP
Eric Risberg | AP
A large billboard stands on top of a Nike store showing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at Union Square on Wednesday in San Francisco. An endorsement deal between Nike and Colin Kaepernick prompted a flood of debate as sports fans reacted to the apparel giant backing an athlete known mainly for starting a wave of protests among NFL players of police brutality, racial inequality and other social issues.

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

As an exhortation, it’s banal, the sort of thing a kindly granddad imparts toward the end of a Hallmark Channel movie. As ad copy for Nike, superimposed on a photo of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s face, it’s apparently more electric.

On Wednesday, Nike unveiled the advertising campaign featuring Kaepernick, who in 2016 catalyzed some National Football League players’ refusal to stand for the national anthem as a protest of police brutality toward Americans of color.

Social-media political performance artists leaped into action. Nike shoes were burned. Swooshes were snipped from socks. America’s tweeter in chief predicted doom for the brand.

It seemed as if we were in for yet another round of national Choose Sides.

That’s not quite how it’s working out.

Shortly after Nike’s announcement, the consumer-research firm Morning Consult released a survey showing that Nike had indeed, as President Donald Trump predicted, taken a reputation hit from its overtly political campaign. Interviews with 8,000 Americans showed a nearly 50 percent decline in Nike’s favorability after announcing the Kaepernick ad campaign. Consumer interest in buying Nike products dropped by 10 percentage points.

Which you might expect. A polarizing political endorsement is going to cost a company with customers on the other side of the issue, though it may still pay off in terms of greater loyalty from people who agree. But surprisingly, the endorsement wasn’t really all that polarizing. Yes, the percentage of Republicans saying they were likely to buy Nike shoes fell from 51 percent to 28 percent, but support also dropped among Democrats, albeit only by 5 percentage points. Blacks and young people, two demographic groups that the Nike campaign presumably was intended to woo, also seem to have been turned off: The number of African-Americans interested in buying Nike dropped from 64 percent to 61 percent, and 18- to 21-year-olds reported a decline of nearly 20 percentage points.

The groups no doubt have different reasons for disliking the campaign: Conservatives resent the politicization of their consumer purchases, while the left objects to the consumerization of their politics. Nonetheless, if the Morning Consult findings hold up, the new ad campaign appears to be a lose-lose proposition for Nike.

One survey of a small fraction of the U.S. population is not a comprehensive picture of every American’s opinion, but how nice it would be if the poll is right. Maybe companies would think twice before injecting politics even into people’s shopping decisions.

[Opinion: Publicly slighting millions of NRA members isn’t good for business — or America]

Companies have historically avoided entering the political fray for fear of just what this survey shows: You often alienate far more customers than you gain. And that’s especially true for big companies. A brand with a left- or right-wing identity can thrive in a smaller niche where most of their customers lean in one direction. But larger-scale operations need to be able to sell into the whole market, so they’ve generally eschewed any moves that would alienate sizable portions of their potential customer base.

But as America has divided into distinct camps — geographic, demographic, political — more companies have started chasing explicitly political identities. Starbucks’s leftward lean has famously roused conservative ire, but many on the left still haven’t forgiven Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy’s remarks opposing same-sex marriage a few years ago. The result is a world in which every decision, even what kind of fast food to buy, has taken on a political aspect.

That’s not healthy for America, which needs more points that people have in common, not more ways to divide into separate teams. Politics and fighting for causes are vital pursuits, of course. I admire Kaepernick for sticking to his principles. But if we Americans are to stay in top fighting form, we also need spaces where we can rest and recharge without agonizing over which brand of chewing gum is the most politically appealing.

And just as 24/7 political arguments sap the strength needed for the important fights, commercializing politics weakens messages that need to be heard. Everyone understands that advertising copy has a bedrock cynicism: The advertiser’s sincerest belief is in selling something, not in the truth or importance of its message. For someone trying to convince the world of the righteousness of a cause, linking it to an ad campaign doesn’t help.

Yet, how many of us would turn down that advertising contract if it were offered? How many brands will resist the drive to color their products red or blue if customers reward them for it? That’s why the Morning Consult survey is such an encouraging sign.

Maybe Americans aren’t divided on this one. Maybe they agree on what they want: a marketplace that’s above politics, and a politics that’s above crass market imperatives. And maybe companies will take the cue and focus instead on making good products, leaving the politics to politicians and voters.

Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist.

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