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Why the social media boycott over Colin Kaepernick is a win for Nike

Nike knows how to play the game, and it won today.

Nike’s Kapernick ad
Kaepernick’s Nike ad.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Goaded by the performative nature of the internet, people are destroying their Nike apparel and declaring a moral boycott over shoes they’ve already purchased — all in the name of denouncing Colin Kaepernick, the newest face of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

On Monday, Nike announced that Kaepernick is one of the athletes helping commemorate the 30th anniversary of the brand’s iconic slogan. (Serena Williams and Odell Beckham Jr. are among the other faces of the campaign.) The ad is a black-and-white close-up of Kaepernick’s face with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” — a reference to Kaepernick’s lawsuit against the NFL for allegedly colluding to keep the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback out of the league over his protests against police brutality.

Though Kaepernick and other NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem maintain that their protest is about police brutality resulting in the deaths of unarmed black Americans, that hasn’t stopped their critics, including President Donald Trump, from claiming that Kaepernick is disrespecting his flag and country.

And so the new Nike ad has inspired some people to post videos and photos of them destroying their Nike apparel in an illustration of their fealty to said flag and country:

What’s followed is a boycott largely confined to performative social-media outrage. Unsurprisingly, this outrage caught the attention of President Donald Trump, leading him to double down on his attacks on Kaepernick and the NFL on Wednesday, in a tweet claiming that the boycott was punitively damaging Nike:

Americans destroying apparel they’ve already paid for to scold a multibillion-dollar company over an ad campaign that promotes rebellion but also is implicitly selling conformity: It sounds like deep-level satire. But that is the world we live in, and it crystallizes some specifics of how the internet outrage machine operates — and how Nike has already won.

Some people are destroying Nike stuff they’ve already bought. More people are mocking them for doing so.

When Kaepernick’s ad was released on Monday night, social media quickly lit up with excitement. But there was also a vocal contingent who staged their own protest, of sorts, in response.

John Rich, of the country duo Big & Rich, tweeted that his sound man (a former Marine) was moved to destroy a pair of white Nike tube socks over the news:

Rich went on to clarify that the news was so inflammatory that it drove the sock-cutter into such a rage that he couldn’t cut straight into the fabric:

Rich’s tweet went viral, though it’s unclear how much of that reflects support for his statement versus a desire to dunk on the guy who destroyed those tube socks:

However, Rich’s documentation of Nike destruction wasn’t the first to appear on social media, nor the first to get dunked on. It followed on the heels of another viral tweet from Twitter user Sean Clancy (whose avatar includes Pepe the frog and the text “don’t tread on memes”), which featured a video of a pair of Nike shoes on fire and seems to have, ahem, ignited the hashtag #BurnYourNikes.

But while there’s a smattering of seemingly sincere participants in this incendiary boycott, including some encouragement from the sitting president of the United States, the #BurnYourNikes hashtag is currently heavily populated by those mocking the performance, pointing out that destroying Nike goods that are already bought and paid for doesn’t actually hurt Nike’s bottom line. In some cases, burning Nikes might inadvertently be advertising for the company.

Other details this viral Nike boycott has thus far failed to take into consideration: whether it also means never rooting for Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, Texas, Baylor, or any other college that is sponsored by Nike; whether it extends to Converse, Hurley, and all the other brands owned by Nike; whether boycotters will also forgo brands like Under Armour, which has also delved into political waters and opposed Trump; and whether the service members being used as justification for the boycott want to be used as props:

What’s being underlined in this conversation around Nike destruction and its relative merit is that this performative boycott isn’t just about the brand itself. Setting Nike shoes on fire or cutting up socks allows these users to voice their displeasure with Nike, and to assert their own identity in a public space that might invite some mockery, sure, but will also reward them for their performance: In shunning Nike on Twitter, they’re also courting follows, likes, and retweets, the platform’s main currency.

For some users, this boycott, regardless of its sincerity, doubles as a branding opportunity — especially for someone like Rich, who has posted several follow-up tweets about Nike and attempted to coin his own hashtag, #PigSocks. His country music band is now more visible than it’s been in years, and the viral boycott he helped spark has drawn increased attention to his Twitter page — which as of press time features a pinned tweet promoting his Redneck Riviera whiskey brand.

The irony here, of course, is that the Kaepernick ad is itself branding — and in reacting to it, its critics are ensuring that Nike is getting exactly what it paid for.

Nike knew what it was doing when it picked Kaepernick for the ad

Nike deciding to highlight Kaepernick wasn’t done on a whim. The company has had Kaepernick under contract since 2011, and reportedly began negotiating a “new, multi-year pact” with him months ago, well after he initiated the lawsuit alluded to in the ad’s text. The timing is not a coincidence.

Like any billion-dollar brand, Nike employs a lot of people, many of whom are experts in marketing. The risk of a negative response was undoubtedly assessed before making the deal, which makes clear that Nike believes the rewards of sponsoring Kaepernick outweigh the cost. That the ad became part of the national conversation within minutes of its release means that it’s already worked, and whatever minor hit Nike’s stock has taken in the immediate aftermath is outweighed by the long-term attention the brand has received.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the identity factor works both ways. The spirit that drives one person to burn a pair of already purchased Nikes is the same spirit that might move another person to buy the branded apparel that’s part of Kaepernick’s endorsement with the company. Whether they’re detractors burning items they’ve already paid for or supporters indicating their approval by buying new items, Nike makes money on both.

In that respect, as Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith points out, this isn’t a completely altruistic story. Nike is still going to make a profit off social justice and people’s desire to do something for a cause.

But it’s also a rare example of a company taking a loud, public stand for social justice and civil rights, and Nike is putting at least some of its money where its mouth is: Kaepernick’s deal with the company reportedly includes a contribution to his Know Your Rights charity. (Kaepernick himself has donated to several civil rights and equality organizations.) That counts for something, even if it loses Nike some fans (who have already bought merchandise) along the way.

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