Nike, Hypocrisy and Cynicism
Emotion. Passion. Physical excellence. Hard work. We are ready to imbue sport and sports stars with these admiral qualities at the drop of a hat. The myth that sport represents meritocracy and just rewards is so pervasive that transcendent basketball talent Wilt Chamberlain is the textbook political theory example of someone who deserves to have vastly more wealth than everyone else. (Nozick: 1974, 157)
Sport thus conceived is the ideal way that one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps - the values it teaches are universal and aspirational. Nike knows this. In the company’s most recent advertising campaign, tennis star Serena Williams narrates a compilation of female sports stars crying, angry and frustrated. She reflects that they’re all called “crazy”, dismissed and put down for activities that might be described as being “fired up” for male sports stars. The video then shows a succession of female sporting achievements, which Williams describes as “crazy” in a new, awe-struck tone.
Opinions on the video might vary, but suckers like me are swept up in the powerful message and imagery. Particularly poignant is the moment when an image of US Open champion Naomi Osaka arguing with the umpire is narrated “When we stand for something, we’re unhinged”. Osaka’s victory in that tournament was famously overshadowed by Williams’ own complaints to the official and the scandal of her accusations of sexism that followed. (BBC: 2018) In this moment Williams is recognising the achievement of a rival whose glory was diminished by Williams’ fight against sexism.
How then should we feel about such a powerful video being produced by and for a corporation such as Nike? Let’s first consider hypocrisy. Some could argue that in catering for and marketing towards men for most of the company’s history, Nike has been complicit in and profited from the male domination of sporting goods. Additionally, and more concretely, Nike has been marred recently by scandals concerning sexual harassment within the company. (Townsend: 2018) This leads people to accuse the company of hypocrisy, but I find that an unconvincing weapon to diminish the impact of this video.
Hypocrisy is a confusing moral charge in any case. Consider someone who says Good but does Bad. We can obviously admonish or punish them for doing Bad, but it seems strange to punish them more for saying Good. Perhaps saying Good allowed them to get away with Bad for longer, but even then, the real problem is the amount of Bad done. At worst, saying Good is pointless, at best it is an aspiration to do better.
In this particular case we can view the advert as a statement of intent. It’s clearly a departure from previous, male focused, campaigns and the advert itself was referenced in the statements surrounding the removal of key management figures implicated in the charges of sexual harassment. This is an emotional call to consumers, but also a commitment mechanism for the company itself.
Now we can move to consider the more serious charge, that such adverts are a cynical attempt to monetise social progress while subverting such progress. The claim here is morally significant as lying to procure money from consumers is a clear wrong that can be caused. Obviously, this advert is an attempt to increase sales, particularly amongst women. Such an increase will presumably lead to an increase in the broadly criticised supply chain practices Nike uses to fulfil that demand. (Bies and Greenberg: 2017) Can we cheer on “our” crazy sportswomen at the expense of those in the Global South who work in sweatshops to fuel it?
It should be noticed that objections to the monetisation of social change are not always valid. In a market corporations are supposed to respond to social change in the form of consumer preferences. When society excludes women from sport, corporations will produce sporting goods exclusively designed for men. Once that preference changes, we should expect firms to accommodate society’s more progressive views. In such a system firms are amoral, neither doing good nor impeding it.
So should we then view the Nike moral conundrum as a failure of our societal preferences? It might seem inflammatory but the claim that society at large wants to encourage women's sport and use sweatshops to lower the cost of the equipment seems plausible. To absolve Nike in this way requires that we consider complete information to be readily available to consumers at the point of purchase. Whilst many consumers “know” that sweatshop labour is involved in the production of their goods, it's unlikely that they are as viscerally aware of the costs as they are of the benefits to their family. This information asymmetry is not particular to consuming Nike goods but perhaps we can view this advert as an attempt to further misinform consumers.
Last September Nike revealed in an emphatic campaign that it has been financially supporting former american football player Colin Kaepernick, who has been without a team since he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans in 2016. This campaign is more convincingly progressive; not just an advert for Nike products but real money invested into making a difference on a social issue. Here we see the most insidious problem with corporations as social activists: the ability to pick winners and losers.
Corporate-sponsored social progress has an unfortunate habit of being directly used to worsen other groups. In 2013, the NFL that Kaepernick played in proudly celebrated its first female referee, clearly a serious step towards progress. Unfortunately, the NFL had only done so in order to break a referees’ strike for better pay. (Jaffe: 2013) Similarly, when Nike joins Kaepernick's fight against institutional racism in America, it does so at least in part to recover its image from its participation in global institutional racism.
How then should we view Nike’s stirring videos? The pieces themselves can be powerful and perhaps even a force for good, but we should be wary of the broader intentions and behaviours of the company that produces them. If consumer pressure can lead to Nike supporting racial justice and female empowerment, then those same consumers can force the company to look to it’s own house.
Serena Williams Nike commercial:
BBC Sport, (2018) Naomi Osaka: US Open title ‘Not the happiest moment’ after Serena Williams’ outbursts. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/45711180 (Accessed 16/03/2019).
Bies, R.J. and Greenberg, J., (2017). Justice, culture, and corporate image: The swoosh, the sweatshops, and the sway of public opinion. The Blackwell Handbook of Cross‐Cultural Management, pp.320-334.
Jaffe, S., Winter (2013). “Trickle Down Feminism”, Dissent. Available at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/trickle-down-feminism (Accessed 16/03/2019).
Nozick, R., (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia (Vol. 5038). New York: Basic Books.
Townsend, M., (2018) Nike Scandal Threatens Its Image With Women at Tumultuous Time.
Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-22/nike-scandal-threatens-its-image-with-women-at-tumultuous-time (Accessed 16/03/2019).