Nike's long history of courting controversy through advertising

Nike ads are about making money, but some have also bled over into social commentary — like the new Colin Kaepernick spot. It's the latest Nike ad to dabble in social commentary.

Use of social commentary in ad campaigns dates back to the 1990s

The decision to feature football player Colin Kaepernick in its new ad campaign is part of a long history at Nike of mixing advertising and messages of social justice (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Nike ads are about making money, but some have also bled over into social commentary — like the new Colin Kaepernick spot. 

The NFL quarterback — a household name since he first "took a knee" in protest during the U.S. national anthem — is now also the face of Nike's "Just Do It" campaign as it marks its 30th anniversary. 

It's a move the sportswear maker had to know would spark controversy and attract a lot of attention. Nike has, after all, dabbled in social commentary before. 

​February 1995: Nike featured an HIV-positive long-distance runner in an earlier "Just Do It" campaign. Over images of Ric Munoz running over trails with beautiful views, backed by a swelling musical score, the viewer learns he ran about 128 kilometres a week and 10 marathons a year. The reveal that he is also HIV positive doesn't come until the very end. 

AIDS activists applauded the ad, saying it helped remove some of the stigma by portraying someone with the disease in a normal, everyday light. "It's very healthy," Sean Strub, publisher and executive editor of Poz, a magazine about AIDS and HIV, told the New York Times. "It breaks down the wall of 'otherness.'"

The ad ran on TV around the world. A Nike spokesperson said at the time that the company knew it would elicit a strong response, "but we wouldn't want it to be one of pity, rather one of understanding about what determination really is."  Nike's ad director also told the Times that the company heard plenty of complaints, including that "no one, including Nike, should talk about [AIDS] publicly." 

August 1995: Another "Just Do It" ad, written and produced by women, was aimed directly at women and girls. Called If You Let Me Play Sports, the 30-second sport featured young girls describing how sports can make their lives better — quoting statistics about healthier lives with less depression, less chance of unplanned pregnancy and a greater probability that they would leave an abusive partner.

The national secretary of the National Organization for Women, Karen Johnson, called it significant. "Building self-esteem is critical to a girl's health," she told the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

Critics suggested the message was overly simplified. "There's a sense of depicting the lot of all women as being fairly miserable, and that somehow being allowed to play sports is a cure-all for that," Dorothy Leland, the director of Florida Atlantic University's Women's Studies Center told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. 

February 2017: Nike released Equality, which featured black sports greats including LeBron James, Serena Williams, Gabby Douglas and Kevin Durant. The ad debuted during the 2017 Grammy Awards broadcast, and featured Michael B. Jordan talking of the parallels between equality in sport and equality in the broader world.

"The ball should bounce the same for everyone," he says. "If we can be equals here, we can be equals everywhere."

The ad came with a commitment from Nike to donate $5 million to U.S. organizations that work to advance equality. 

March 2017: Nike featured five Middle Eastern women who pushed social norms to succeed in sports in What Will They Say About You? The digital spot shows the women, some in hijabs, drawing disdainful looks from passerby as they run, skateboard and box. "What," a female voice wonders in Arabic, "will they think?

"Will it be that you don't belong, that it's unladylike, or that you're not built for this? Maybe. But it also goes on to say that just maybe they will think instead that you are strong, and can't be stopped, and that you make it look easy." It ends on a message of hope for the future over a little girl, just starting out on her figure skates. 

The campaign came out one year before Nike launched its hijab line of sportswear. Nike released similar ads under the same theme in Russia, Turkey and the Middle East.

In the wake of the Kaepernick ad, some are questioning whether Nike is using its advertising to truly send a message, or simply for financial gain. Author and journalist Anand Giridharadas says some companies simply "sidle up to social justice to essentially rebrand themselves on the cheap." 

Author and journalist Anand Giridharadas questions Nike's motivation for the Kaepernick spot:

Author Anand Giridharadas questions Nike's motivation for using Colin Kaepernick in its ad 1:02