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Colin Kaepernik’s Protest in Nike’s Ad Campaign


The internet and social media have become the new television, an instrument of capturing the zeitgeist and influencing people’s opinions and beliefs. With the lack of censorship and nearly universal access, people can promote the messages and causes they believe in. However, with this openness and mass accessibility, the internet can also be used to instill hate, spread lies, and potentially endanger peoples’ careers through creating bad publicity.

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It can be used as a tool for social justice as well as for corporate warfare. Analyzing posts on social media and the ripple effect they send out into the world can provide interesting observations as well as insights into the nature of the posts themselves. The purpose of this observational paper is to study the ripple effect of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police violence, the subsequent adoption of his quote in Nike’s advertising campaign, and the publicity that came along with it.

The Story

The controversy involving Colin Kaepernick, Nike (the company), and President Donald Trump appeared in early September when Nike used a tweet posted by Colin Kaepernick, as its promotional slogan. The tweet reads as follows: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The meaning behind the message relates to Colin Kaepernick’s actions in August 2016, when he did not honor the American flag and anthem by standing up, in a protest against police brutality, shootings, and unwarranted arrests of black people (Eriggo et al.).

The athletes created a wide discussion in the media, which split the society into two halves, with some supporting the protest while others considering the dishonor of the flag and anthem to be unpatriotic. President Donald Trump stated that the athletes were wrong to do so and that their action casts the shadow on the entire National Football League (NFL) (Wang and Rachel). Colin Kaepernick lost his job since and remained in retirement.

However, according to the New York Times, the story continued when Nike chose to take Kaepernick’s side and stand by him, using his face and his tweet as an advertising punch line. This created a resonance in the media, with some individuals demonstratively burning down Nike merchandise they owned. Nevertheless, Nike remained steadfast in its support of Kaepernick. The NFL released a statement, saying that “the social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action” (Eriggo et al.).

Aims, Purposes, Main Point, and Audience

Mass media articles present several opposing views on the event, the athlete’s true motives, and Nike’s involvement. In many cases, the interpretation of these parameters depends on the political affiliation of the mass media platform. The most popular view, as featured by The Independent, states that sportsmen have the potential to use their publicity as a political platform (Mindock). According to the article, the motivations of the athlete were to attract attention to the social issues of injustice, police brutality, and inequality.

The point behind the message was that a country where injustice is institutionalized and accepted by the government and the society does not deserve respect. Academic research shows that there are more whites arrested and shot by police officers per year, the rate of these actions is 2.5 times higher for blacks than for whites (Gase et al. 297). The audience for such a statement includes not only the immediate spectators of the football match but also every individual with an active pro-social justice position that gets to hear about the event. It is stated that Colin Kaepernick was ready to martyr his career in order to fight for what he believed in.

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However, another view about Colin Kaepernick and Nike controversy is voiced by Abad-Santos, who claims that the scandal and the subsequent #BoycottNike did not deal any damage to Nike’s public profile, and instead only drove up its value in the stock market as well as increased its sales. This suggestion portrays both Nike and Colin Kaepernick in a different light, suggesting an economic motive behind the post that happened just before Nike launched its advertisement campaign.

According to Abad-Santos, the aims and purposes of the message are to provoke a further divide between those supporting and those being against the recent wave of social justice movements that covered the USA in the past few years. The audience involves everyone who cares about the issues of black people, either in a positive and negative way. Nike is willing to lose some of its customers in return for acquiring new ones. The main point is to get free publicity and use social justice issues as a selling point. The article states that it worked, as the company had already earned over 6 billion dollars since it published its ad with Kaepernick and took a proactive political position (Abad-Santos).

The third, and, arguably, most unpopular opinion, is that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee for the national flag and later posted the message was to incite political controversy, insult the veterans, and personally oppose President Donald Trump and his policies. Marc A. Thiessen of the Washington post voices this opinion in his article. His evaluation of aims, purposes, main points, and the audience for this story is as follows (Thiessen):

  • Aims and purposes: Under the guise of existing social tensions and problems, which have existed for years, call out President Donald Trump for his controversial opinions and policies.
  • Main point: No respect for the country, the president, and individuals who support him (veterans), because of social injustice against blacks and the people of color.
  • Audience: Trump supporters, Trump opponents, and those undecided.

The article states that such actions are not only politically charged and purposefully calculated, but also dishonor the individuals who served and protected the country and flag. In Thiessen’s opinion, the issues of social inequality do not connect to the principles that the USA was built on, which the flag represents.

Synthesis of Information and Conclusions

As it is possible to see, all three sides of the story have the potential for manipulation of public opinion in a certain way. The first type of journalism, which takes the statements made by Kaepernick at face value, without adding any interpretations to his words, is the type less likely to be used to manipulate the readers. However, this type of storytelling can be used in such a way by oversaturating the information field in order to create a desired public opinion.

The second and third stories both have negative subtexts to them. The story by Vox creates the association between Kaepernick and a greedy multinational corporation, portraying his message in a self-serving light, whereas the third opinion publically accuses him of using social issues and controversies to disrespect the flag and country and promote personal political vendettas. All three stories and interpretations have truth to themselves, at least potentially. This portrays the story and the underlying motivations of the people interpreting it in a complex sociopolitical context, where everyone has something to gain, and much to lose.


Abad-Santos, Alex. “Why the Social Media Boycott Over Colin Kaepernick is a Win for Nike.Vox. 2018. 

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Ergo, Michael, et al. “Colin Kaepernick to Star in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ Campaign.” The Washington Post. 2018. Web.

Gase, Lauren N., et al. “Understanding Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Arrest: The Role of Individual, Home, School, and Community Characteristics.” Race and Social Problems, vol. 8, no. 4, 2016, pp. 296-312.

Mindock, Clark. “Taking a Knee: Why are NFL Players Protesting and When Did They Start to Kneel?The Independent. 2018. 

Thiessen, Marc A. “Disrespecting the Flag is a Disgraceful Way to Protest Trump.”. 2017. Web.

Wang, Amy B., and Rachel Siegel. “Trump: Nike ‘Getting Absolutely Killed’ With Boycotts over Colin Kaepernick’s ‘Just Do It’ Campaign.” The Washington Post. 2018. Web.

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