Sun, Sep 09, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Nike campaign signals change in shoe politics

AP

A Nike billboard featuring NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is pictured in midtown Manhattan, New York City, on Friday.

Photo: EPA

A pair of shoes are set aflame with a cigarette lighter, captured on video and shared widely online to protest a political statement made by the manufacturer.

The New Balance shoes were burned by their owners two years ago after a spokeswoman indicated the company’s support for US President Donald Trump’s trade policies.

Nike now finds itself in a similar position on the other side of the political spectrum as some customers cut up its products or burn them because of the company’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign.

With the Kaepernick campaign, Nike is embracing activism and racial justice at a time when shoe companies can no longer avoid the nation’s political division.

After years of building billion-dollar brands around sports celebrities, shoe and apparel makers now find themselves flashpoints in the political, racial and cultural clashes surrounding the Trump administration.

Nike took this route as its biggest representatives — most notably LeBron James and Serena Williams — have spoken out about police shootings of African-Americans and problems facing the black community.

Those same athletes are increasingly using their shoes as a form of expression. James’ “Equality” Nike signature shoe was unveiled earlier this year, with the word emblazoned across the back of the shoes. Stephen Curry has worn a former US president Barack Obama-themed shoe.

NBA players have worn shoes with messages of “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin” and “Sideline Racism,” and images of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr preached.

Such statements could become more common in the next season after the NBA relaxed the rules over the types of shoes players can wear.

“I stand with Nike every day, all day,” James said on Tuesday at a Nike fashion show and awards ceremony in New York.

Athletic apparel companies have straddled the entertainment and cultural worlds for years, partly with their emulation of black culture — think Run-DMC’s Adidas shoe deal in the wake of the group’s rap hit My Adidas and Nike’s “Air Jordan” campaigns featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee.

This has created a billion-dollar industry and the cultural challenge of how to appeal to minority and youth communities, as well as to the US’ white, sometimes conservative, majority.

However, companies and major sports leagues have been careful not to stray into real politics, famously symbolized by Jordan, who reportedly said that Republicans also buy shoes.

While Jordan and others in his era were thrilled to have lucrative shoe deals, the current generation is going farther by using their sneaker deals as a platform to promote social justice.

With that shift, Nike is taking the side of its superstar athletes — even if it means alienating Trump supporters and intertwining shoes and politics.

Many companies “feel the need to align with players, because players help them move the product,” said Michael Lewis, director of the Marketing Analytics Center at Emory University in Atlanta.

Clothing and shoe makers have always had a back-and-forth relationship with minority communities. Business boomed as black athletes became spokespeople, but questions arose over how much the companies invested financially in black communities, compared with how much they made by exploiting African-American trends.

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