$6 billion dollars. That is the increase in market share since the world’s largest athletic retailer introduced ads featuring Colin Kaepernick a few weeks ago. Despite early media reports about stock decline and the campaign being a “risk”, it was a very calculated and strategic move. They’re the 18th most valuable brand in the world (between IBM and Verizon) according to Forbes and WSJ. These people are in the business of brand building and part of the reason they hold such a valuable brand is because they and their ad agency Wieden+Kennedy are experts at making it look like they give a shit.
Despite what they’ve convinced us of they didn’t respond to this issue because it mattered they responded when it was popular and safe enough to address. It’s only when controversial ideas become part of the accepted ideological or cultural hegemony that corporations like this choose a side or ‘take a stand’. There’s only a risk in taking a stand when you stand alone. Considering their customers are younger, less white and more left-leaning than the national averages, they were not standing alone. They never have.
In 1995 they created an ad campaign featuring an openly gay athlete living with HIV. They would not have touched this issue 10 years earlier when it needed the support and attention of a big company like them. They wouldn’t have gotten involved back when it mattered because they were afraid we’d think there was AIDS in our shoes. Years of activism and public health education campaigns helped us better understand the disease and acceptance grew. This company just exploited that effort.
Last year they came out with a campaign featuring Middle Eastern women running in hijabs, boxing with the Amman skyline in the background etc. They would not have involved these women or any brown people Americans might have confused for terrorists in the wake of 9-11. That’s when Middle Eastern people probably needed to be humanized by Americans the most. Grassroots campaigning and public outcry against discrimination of Muslims made these subjects safe. Once women in hijabs were en vogue enough they cashed in.
People who buy exploitation-labor products from a wage-suppressing mega corporation because they showed superficial support for a political issue are just the type of idiots these cons are designed for. Especially since this recent effort is by far the most profitable advertising campaign in the brand’s history and now puts their market value at an all-time high. They can’t take all of the credit though. There were many unpaid individuals who volunteered their time to make this campaign a huge success. For instance:
It’s not all volunteers though. Many of the key players actually get a cut of our social justice money. For instance:
They’re not alone in exploiting the efforts of grassroots activists. Corporations capitalizing off of liberation movements and social justice has a storied history. Here are a few of the many examples.
Believe it or not there was a time when the Friedan/Steinem variety of pop feminism was considered an extremist’s point of view. Women were not a viable advertising target since retailers would have been shooting themselves in the foot taking sides with the unemployed half of the argument. Like Black Lives Matter whose success in raising awareness about police violence did much of the heavy lifting for the recent campaign, it could be argued that grassroots feminism did the same for Virginia Slims in the 70’s. Not just because their ad copy was all but plagiarized from feminist rhetoric or because Gloria Steinem's own Ms. Magazine ran those ads. Their biggest contribution was empowering women to join the workforce inadvertently creating the women’s cigarette market which Phillip Morris happily took advantage of.
With millions of acres of Amazon rainforest eliminated, McDonald’s was single-handedly winning man’s war against nature in 1992. After a huge public outcry about deforestation, the chain decided to smooth things over with the American public by replacing toys with baby trees in kid’s Happy Meals. Somehow children were the ones who got punished. As soon as the dust settled though it was slash and burn as usual.
In 2004 the Dove Soap and Personal Care brand launched the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” whose purpose was addressing the impact advertising can have on a woman’s body image. Problem is, Dove is owned by juggernaut soap mongers Unilever who own Axe Body Spray. Axe’s advertising features highly sexualized and unrealistically thin models, the type of advertising the campaign was supposedly designed to combat. They also own a skin-whitening brand called Fair & Lovely whose name and marketing both equate whiteness with beauty.
In 2010 KFC partnered with the Susan G. Kommen breast cancer foundation in making their buckets pink for “Buckets for the Cure”. They donate 50 cents per bucket of chicken to Kommen despite information on the organization’s own website claiming fried and high-fat foods have been directly linked to breast cancer.
Little has changed in all of these years. People who are too dense to distinguish political activism from an advertising campaign are in no short supply and our woke dollars will go to the same place they always have, Aspen ski trips for wealthy white executives.
May 5th 2020
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