Nike's latest ad campaign featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick received a lot of praise over the sports company's apparent willingness to stand up for its values. But while it is easy to fall for Nike's pandering to the anti-Trump crowd, we can't ignore the negative impact this trend of commodifying social justice has on achieving the very goals these companies claim to support.
What has shone through most analyses of Nike's campaign is the clear business sense it makes. Shunning the (typically) older, more conservative consumers who may only buy a new item every couple of years, the brand took a calculated risk by choosing to focus on young, socially conscious consumers who are more likely to buy fashionable sportswear on a frequent basis.
With the most recent reports indicating a 61 per cent increase in Nike's online sales since the launch of the campaign, this risk has clearly paid off.
Although it is important to note the hypocrisy of a brand which claims to support equality but has faced allegations of worker exploitation as recently as 2017, the real harm comes from the very act of using a social cause to sell products. The first harm is in the message that it sends: "Want to fight police brutality? Go buy some shoes". It's selling the idea that the best way to show your support for a cause is not to go out and protest, but to buy a product from a brand that seems to speak for you. This in turn leads to a sort of complacency within people who are interested in social issues, but not interested enough to do anything of actual value.
The further harm that the commodification of social justice causes is the ability for brands to decide what is an issue that's worth fighting for and what is not. Nike is not going to make an ad about improving workers' conditions in sweatshops.
As a recent editorial in US magazine The New Republic pointed out, this is made worse by the fact that these ads tend to target middle class people whose social awareness was only sparked by the Trump presidency. This means that they're most likely to focus on broad issues such as the most blatant examples of gender discrimination or the most overt displays of racism. These ads only confirm their belief that those are the most pressing social issues that need to be tackled, while diverting attention from issues that would directly affect the company's profits.
As consumers and, ultimately, as members of society, we need to be conscious that this is happening and remain true to the issues that we've independently chosen to pay attention to. Believe in something, even if it means ignoring that black-and-white poster of some football player's face.