Why Nike no longer wants us to Be Like Mike
“Hey bro! Check out this Nike ad!” This was my entry point into a new world.
I transferred dorms because a clerical quirk sent me to the “Substance Free” building, not that there’s anything wrong with being substance free. It’s just that the choice is its own selection bias of people who opted out of college as we commonly know it. The people in my hall were nice but … different. On Day 1, the effusively odd RA had nicknamed me “Ethanol.” Both my roommates spent weekends with their families, as did so many in the building. This was, perhaps, all commendably wholesome behavior, and should be more of a mainstream practice, but it made for an eerily silent atmosphere during the time when the rest of campus was partying. One day, the friendly RA changed my nickname from Ethanol to “Chuh-Chuh-Oh,” a reference to ethanol’s chemical formula script of CH3−CH2−OH. That night, I filled out the transfer form for a different dorm and a new life.
My new roommate was named Carlos and he’d split his time growing up between San Francisco and Guatemala before landing here as a transfer student at age 21. Within the first hour of meeting, he asked me, “Do you drink?” and pulled a rum bottle out of the minifridge. Carlos could get booze. Legally. Like a grownup. So naturally I assumed this worldly individual knew everything and I needed to learn. He certainly was game to teach, imposing harsh lessons when I came up short over the course of our friendship. There was that one morning, after I got too drunk to ask out my future wife, when I awoke to his getting me off the couch with the painful crack whip of a belt. But I digress.
Since Carlos had lived mostly outside the United States, he was able to follow soccer on a level I’d never encountered in my hometown. Back then, before social media and the advent of scarf-wearing Northwestern fútbol hipsters, big-time European soccer was like the metric system: Known to almost all but ourselves. But Carlos knew, and immediately used LimeWire to curate me a massive archive of 1990s through early 2000s soccer highlights. What was I doing in the world without them?
Oddly enough, in trying to inculcate me in soccer fandom, he started not with game highlights, but with the advertisements. Yes, Carlos was an educator and a voluntary footsoldier for Big Apparel. Going in, I had no clue about high-quality, internationally popular Nike soccer ads. The ads, written by the legendary Wieden+Kennedy firm, were miniature movies, films that were often creatively daring but also quite funny. The most popular of these ads might be “Good vs. Evil,” from 1996, where Nike’s best soccer players team up to play Satan’s literal army. The blending of sacrilege, theology and comedy just worked, like a more ambitious version of Space Jam that somehow took itself less seriously than Space Jam.
Action movies of this era usually featured a hero who coolly tagged his kills with a catchphrase and this ad was no exception. Extremely French superstar Eric Cantona pops his collar, his trademark look, and calmly intones, “Au revoir,” before literally killing Satan with a fiery screamer of a goal, right through Beelzebub’s belly. This ad rules. 10 out of 10. It’s no wonder it ascended to the level of college dude-bonding material. I must have watched it dozens of times that year.
Yes, I know ads aren’t supposed to be high art. I understand that they are the purest distillation of manipulative greed. And yet, they sometimes are culturally relevant generational touchstones. While Nike was weaving soccer into enduring pop culture abroad, it was having a similar kind of success with basketball and baseball stateside. These ads weren’t just pure ephemera. Michael Jordan’s commercials were so good that, as he nears age 60, his sneaker still outsells any modern athlete’s. “Chicks dig the long ball” is a phrase (a) that can get you sent to the modern HR department and b) whose origins are fondly remembered by most American men over the age of 35.
Modern Nike ads will never be so remembered. It’s not because we’re so inundated with information these days, though we are. And it’s not because today’s overexposed athletes lack the mystique of the 1990s superstars, though they do. It’s because the modern Nike ads are beyond fucking terrible.
Existence Dissonance and Its Discontents
They’re bad for many causes, but one in particular is an incongruity at the company’s heart. Nike, like so many major institutions, is suffering from what I’ll call Existence Dissonance. It’s happening in a particular way, for a particular reason and the result is that what Nike is happens to be at cross-purposes from what Nike aspires to be.
From Sara Germano’s excellent Financial Times article on Nike’s civil war:
“It’s been a tumultuous period for Nike,” says Trevor Edwards, the former brand president of the company who left in 2018. “It is so based on passion for sport, passion for the Nike brand, and that passion is starting to dissipate internally.” The result is one of the most challenging moments in the company’s history. It must contend not only with a radical shift in retail strategies but also the wider cultural reckoning with the intersection of race, gender and power. In interviews with current and former employees, industry executives, consumers and retail partners, divisions emerge over how to tackle such issues while remaining true to the spirit that has set the brand apart from other sportswear manufacturers. One question looms above the rest: is it the end of an era for Nike?
For all the talk of a racial reckoning within major industries, Nike’s main problem is this: It’s a company built on masculinity, most specifically Michael Jordan’s alpha dog brand of it. Now, due to its own ambitions, scandals, and intellectual trends, Nike finds masculinity problematic enough to loudly reject.
This rejection is part of the broader culture war, but it’s accelerating due to an arcane quirk in the apparel giant’s strange restructuring plan, announced in June. Under the leadership of new CEO John Donahoe, Nike is moving away from its classic discrete sports categories (Nike Basketball, Nike Soccer, etc.) in favor of a system where all products are shoveled into one of three divisions: men’s, women’s and kids’. Obviously Nike made clothing tailored to the specificities of all these groups before, but now, Nike is emphasizing gender over sport. Gone is the model of the product appealing to basketball fans because they are basketball fans. It’s now replaced by a model of, say, the product appealing to women because they are women.
And hey, women buy sneakers too. Actually, women buy the lion’s share of clothing in the United States. While women shoppers are market dominant in nearly every aspect of American apparel, the clothing multinational named after a Greek goddess happens to be a major exception. At Nike, according to its own records, men account for roughly twice as much revenue as women do.
You might see that stat and think, “Well, this means that Nike will prioritize men over women in its new, odd, gendered segmentation of the company.” That’s not necessarily how this all works, thanks to a phenomenon I’ll call Undecided Whale. The idea is that a company, as its aims grow more expansive, starts catering less to the locked-in core customer and more to a potential whale which demonstrates some interest. Sure, you can just keep doing what’s made you rich, but how can you even focus on your primary business with that whale out there, swimming so tantalizingly close? The whale, should you bring it in, has the potential to enrich you far more than your core customers ever did. And yeah yeah yeah, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but those were birds. This is a damned whale! And so you start forgetting about your base.
You can see this dynamic in other places. For the NBA, China is its Undecided Whale. It could be argued that the NBA fixates more on China than on America, even if the vast majority of TV money comes from U.S. viewership. The league figures it has more or less hit its ceiling in its home country, so China becomes an obsession as this massive, theoretical growth engine.
Similarly at Nike, male purchasing power is taken as given. They are the Decided Dolphins or whatever extended animal metaphor you wish to use. So, it’s the Undecided Whale of women who present as that glorious bridge to the future and thus drive company strategy. Nike is one of the world’s biggest apparel companies despite lagging with women? Imagine if it didn’t lag?! That’s the thinking, anyway. On to wooing the whale!
Here’s the main issue for Nike in this endeavor: The company, as a raison d’être, promotes athletic excellence. While women are among Nike’s major sports stars, the core of high-level performance, in the overwhelming majority of sports, is male. Every sane person knows that, though nobody in professional class life seems rude enough to say so. Obviously, there’s the observable reality of who tends to set records and there’s also the pervasive understanding that testosterone, the main male sex hormone, happens to give unfair advantages to the athletes who inject it.
Speaking of which, there’s a famous This American Life episode from 2002 where the public radio journos actually test their own testosterone levels. The big joke of the episode is just how comically low their T levels are. Sure, you would stereotype bookish public radio men in this way, and yet the results are on the nose enough to shock.
As a nerdy media-weakling type, I can relate to the stunning realization that you’ve been largely living apart from T. Before working in the NBA setting, I was an intern in the cubicles of Salon.com’s San Francisco office, around the time it was shifting from respectable online magazine into inane outrage content mill. Going from that setting to the NBA locker room was some jarring whiplash, like leaving the faculty lounge for a pirate ship. To quote Charles Barkley on the latter culture, “The locker room is sexist, racist, and homophobic … and it’s fun and I miss it.”
The NBA world conversations were loud, rude and hilarious, without regard to sensitivities, absent the competing empathies that obsessed Salon’s writers. After big games, you could sense that cathartic release of adrenaline in the air, as large men bellowed and talked their shit. You could get bullied out of nowhere. What are you wearing? Did your mom pick that out? A buddy who worked for a team told me that Shaquille O’Neal had a tendency to get naked, tackle the team trainer and mock hump the poor guy. And that was fine because it was funny to everyone present and whatever was funny could be allowed. In this world of physical competition, there are no rules, only codes. It’s how the sausage gets made, so to speak, before the public is served a sanitized version of giant dudes fighting a simulated battle.
If you’re committed to marketing sports overall, you’re marketing, at the very least, a brand of masculinity. Dominating your opponents isn’t the only way to be a man and doing so isn’t exclusively the province of men, but the act itself is a disproportionately male endeavor, and also something that really appeals to male audiences. The nation that contains more female than male sports fans … doesn’t exist.
Nike sold the public this rented masculinity, year after year, and the public bought it, including the many women who found Nike’s pitchmen and products to be charismatic. Michael Jordan was a hypercompetitive alpha male asshole who viciously humiliated not just his opponents, but his teammates as well. The millions who tuned in for the Last Dance documentary found these dark impulses of his to be highly captivating.
What the viewers were drawn to in Jordan, what the ensuing memes drew off of, was what Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle theorized about a good perfume scent: “Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty.” So yes, masculinity is toxic. And that’s also what people love about it, similar to how they’re addicted to the rotten rinds in cheese. All that striving for greatness is indivisible from the selfish need to inflict cruelty on your dominated foe. Take away the latter and there is no sports. It’s just exercise.
Now we have Nike producing ads directly against the kind of “toxic masculinity” that made The Last Dance a runaway hit. In an article titled, “Marcus Rashford boots toxic masculinity out of frame in Nike ad,” a writer describes a talking soccer ball whose spiel seems to be right out of the MJ mindset, if not the Black Mamba’s:
“First of all, you’ve got to be greedy! I’m looking for that nasty streak. You don’t ask, you take. You’re either the star of the show or a loser,” the tough Cockney football growls his outdated advice, exemplifying the nasty side of the sport.
With a kick, the toxic football is booted out of frame before he can voice any more of old-school spiel. Heralding in a new era of sport, the nasty football has been punted out by Marcus Rashford MBE, who has made a name as a formidable voice for social justice.
A nasty streak is bad? It’s awful to “take” in the realm of competition? Soccer is a bit different from basketball culturally, but if Nike’s depiction of an “old-school” soccer mentality is real, it’s not that much different. It’s all about crushing your enemies, mercilessly, be they perfectly nice gentlemen or the devil himself. Au revoir.
The “Good vs. Evil” ad boasts a “Like” to “Dislike” ratio of 20-to-1 on YouTube. On June 17th of 2021, Nike put out an ad ahead of the Euro Cup that referenced “Good vs. Evil” as briefly as it could. In this case, a little child popped his collar and used Cantona’s catchphrase. As of this writing, the new ad has earned a thousand more punches of the Dislike than of the Like button.
When you see it, it’s no surprise that the latest Euro Cup ad is disliked. I mean, you have to look at this shit. I know we’re so numb to the ever-escalating emanations of radical chic from our largest corporations, but sometimes it’s worth pausing just to take stock and gawk.
The Wieden+Kennedy Euro Cup spot begins with a zaftig girl yelling, “We celebrate the birth of a new land! The land of new football.” And look, I didn’t want to draw attention to a real-life kid’s appearance, but I’m not mentioning any names and this is Substack, not Twitter, so perhaps we can assume some containment of unflattering descriptions. It’s worth mentioning the choice because typically Nike uses an athletic demigod to sell its product. It’s a tried-and-true model. You want to be like a great-looking athletic superstar with 0% body fat, right? You want to transform yourself into something more similar to peak human performance, correct? Well, you can start by wearing these shoes.
But today we are in the land of new football, where we take dictatorial direction from less-than-athletic minors. After her announcement, we are treated to a montage of different people who offer tolerance bromides.
“There are no borders here!”
“Here, you can be whoever you want. Be with whoever you want.”
(Two men kiss following that line, because subtlety isn’t part of this new world order.)
Then, a woman who appears to be breastfeeding under a soccer shirt, threatens, in French, “And if you disagree …”
And this is when the little boy gives us Cantona’s “au revoir” line before kicking a ball out of a soccer stadium, presumably because that’s what happens to the ignorant soccer hooligan. He gets kicked out for raging against gay men kissing or French ladies breastfeeding or somesuch. Later, a referee wearing a hijab instructs us, “Leave the hate,” before narrator girl explains, “You might as well join us because no one can stop us.”
Is that last line supposed to be … inspiring? That’s what a movie villain says, like if Bane took the form of Stan Marsh’s sister. Speaking of which, was this ad actually written by the creators of South Park as an elaborate prank? It’s certainly more convincing as an aggressive parody of liberals than as a sales pitch. Why, in anything other than a comedic setup, is a woman breastfeeding in a big-budget Euro Cup ad?
It’s tempting to fall into the pro-vanguardism template the boomers have handed down to us and sheepishly say, “I must be getting old, because this seems weird to me,” but let’s get real. You dislike this ad because it sucks. You are having a natural, human response to shitty art. This a hollow sermon from a priest whose sins were in the papers. Nobody is impressed by what Nike’s doing here. Nobody thinks Nike, a multinational famous for its sweatshops, is ushering us into an enlightened utopia. Sure, most media types are afraid to criticize the ad publicly. You might inspire suspicion that what you’re secretly against is men kissing and women breastfeeding, but nobody actually likes the stupid ad. No college kid would show it to a new friend he’s trying to impress, and it’s hard to envision a massive cohort of Gen Z women giving a shit about this ad either.
Now juxtapose that ad not just against the classics of the 1990s but also the 2000s products that preceded the Great Awokening. Compare it to another Nike Euro Cup advertisement, Guy Ritchie’s “Take It to the Next Level.”
Now this is a hell of a soccer ad. It slickly transports you to a realistic POV of what life is like at the absolute height of competition. Not only do you follow a story arc, but you bounce around to different aspects of a stardom journey. People love it, as evidenced by this ad reaping 22,000 Likes to a mere 301 Dislikes as of this writing.
Here’s the problem, insofar as problems are pretended into existence by our media class: The ad is very, very male. Really, what we are watching here is a boyhood fantasy. Our protagonist gets called up to the big show, and next thing you know he’s cavorting with multiple ladies, and autographing titties to the chagrin of his date. He can be seen buying a luxury sports car and arriving at his childhood home in it as his father beams with pride. Training sessions show him either puking from exhaustion or playing grab-ass with his fellow soccer bros. This is jock life, distilled. Art works when it’s true and it’s true that this is a vivid depiction of a common fantasy realized.
Nike’s highly successful “Write the Future” ad (16,000 Likes, 257 Dislikes) works along similar themes.
The 2010 World Cup spot plays on the idea of how history might revere the tournament’s winner or scorn the loser. Ah, a history fixation. So dorkily, stereotypically male, as Mark Corrigan might attest.
It is not a politically correct ad, in part because it features cultural stereotypes of the nations involved. The stereotypes just happen to be dead on, and funny, especially in the section that covers angsty England. Again, art works when it’s true. That’s perhaps not exactly why the ad would be wrongthink at today’s Nike, though. It wouldn’t be made at today’s Nike because it depicts winning as glorious and losing as humiliating. The former can be tolerated, but the latter is just too damn mean. Toxic, even. The new Nike spin on “Just Do It,” is basically, “At Least You Tried.”
Nike’s basketball ads are garbage now as well. Quick, think of the last one that was great. You’ve an impressive memory or remarkably low standards if you instantly called up something from the past five years that wasn’t this Kobe retirement ad from 2016. Team USA basketball should have provided a nice launching pad for some Nike spots, but no.
The recent Olympic ads were especially heavy on cringe radical chic, and might have stood out less in this respect if the athletes themselves mirrored that tone on the big stage. Not so much in these Olympics. It seems as though Nike made the commercials in preparation for an explosion of telegenic activism, only to see American athletes mostly, quietly accept their medals, chomp down on the gold, and praise God or country. Perhaps you could consider Simone Biles bowing out of events due to mental health as a form of activism, but overall, the athletes basically behaved in the manner they would have back in 1996.
But Nike forged onwards anyway. This ad in celebration of the U.S. women’s basketball team made some waves, getting ripped in conservative media as the latest offense by woke capital.
Raising the bar at the highest level is what they do. They’ve done it consistently for over 25 years. Congratulations to the USAB WNT for bringing home their 7th straight 🥇 and continuing to rep the best of us.
“Today I have a presentation on dynasties,” a pink-haired teenage girl tells us. “But I refuse to talk about the ancient history and drama. That’s just the patriarchy. Instead, I’m going to talk about a dynasty that I actually look up to. An all-women dynasty. Women of color. Gay women. Women who fight for social justice. Women with a jump shot. A dynasty that makes your favorite men’s basketball, football, and baseball teams look like amateurs.”
When she says, “That’s just the patriarchy,” the camera pans to a bust of (I think) Julius Caesar. At another point, the girl says, “A dynasty that makes Alexander the Great look like Alexander the Okay.” Fuck you, Classical Antiquity. Fuck you, fans of teams. You’re all just the patriarchy. Or something.
Nike could easily sell the successful American women’s basketball team without denigrating other teams, genders and ancient Mediterranean empires that have nothing to do with this. Could but won’t. The company now conveys an almost visceral need for women to triumph over men because … well, nobody really explains why, even if it has something to do with Undecided Whaling. In Nike’s tentpole Olympics ad titled “Best Day Ever,” the narrator fantasizes about the future, declaring, “The WNBA will surpass the NBA in popularity!”
By comparison, the scornful U.S. women’s basketball team ad makes some sense. While it’s perhaps poor form that the ad’s star denigrates men so as to appeal to women, at least the ad is about celebrating a women’s team specifically. In that context, I guess you can understand some battle of the sexes shit-talking, even if the content gets fairly insane. But the general Nike ad, the one featuring all the main sports, wishing for a future in which the WNBA surpasses the NBA? Doesn’t equal but surpasses?
The NBA built Nike into a behemoth and now Nike tells the world it wants the WNBA to surpass it. If that reality is even possible, it probably includes broke Nike executives jumping out of windows. Hilariously, Nike also tells the world, “The only problem with the WNBA is you’re not watching it”. They aren’t marketing greatness anymore. They’re marketing resentful insecurity. But why?
There are theories on the emergence of woke capital, with many having observed that, following Occupy Wall Street, media institutions ramped up on census category grievance. The thinking goes that, in response to the threat of a real economic revolution, the power players in our society pushed identity politics to undermine group solidarity. Well, that was a fiendishly brilliant plan, if anyone actually hatched it.
I’m not so convinced, though, as I’m more inclined to believe that a lot of history happens by happenstance. If we’re to specifically analyze the Nike Awokening, there is a recent top-down element of a mandate for Undecided Whaling, but that mandate was preceded by a socially conscious middle class campaign within the company.
This isn’t unique to Nike, either. Given my past life covering the team that tech moguls root for, I’ve run into such people. They aren’t, by and large, ideological. Very few are messianically devoted to seeing the world through the intersectionality lens. They are, however, terrified of their employees who feel this way. The mid-tier labor force, this cohort who actually internalized their university teachings, are full of fervor and willing to risk burned bridges in favor of causes they deem righteous. The big bosses just don’t want a headline-making walkout on their hands, so they placate and mollify, eventually bending the company’s voice into language of righteousness.
In 2018, a New York Times article detailed the middle-up “revolt” within Nike, driven by women who had enough of an “environment that had turned toxic.” According to the report, the Nike company culture wasn’t so far from that of the locker room, which will run you into some problems when your locker room employs 75,000 people, with both sexes included. Even if Nike had thrived over the decades, its ways didn’t seem sustainable in the modern world. Finally, a concerted push from middle class female employees led to multiple high-profile male ousters, including the aforementioned Trevor Edwards. From the NYT:
Finally, fed up, a group of women inside Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters started a small revolt. Covertly, they surveyed their female peers, inquiring whether they had been the victim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Their findings set off an upheaval in the executive ranks of the world’s largest sports footwear and apparel company. On March 5, the packet of completed questionnaires landed on the desk of Mark Parker, Nike’s chief executive. Over the next several weeks, at least six top male executives left or said they were planning to leave the company, including Trevor Edwards, president of the Nike brand, who was widely viewed as a leading candidate to succeed Mr. Parker, and Jayme Martin, Mr. Edwards’s lieutenant, who oversaw much of Nike’s global business.
In the aftermath, the company has externalized the turmoil within through the ads mentioned above, blasting out self-conscious lectures towards the blameless masses. It reminds of how, with the advent of #MeToo, we were treated to sermonizing awards show speech after sermonizing awards show speech from actors blaming broader society, as though Hollywood wasn’t especially depraved. Yes, Joe in Iowa, our grotesque behavior means it’s time for YOU to start treating women better. Got it??
All the guilt and atonement transference make for bad art. And so the ads suck. There’s no Machiavellian conspiracy behind the production. It’s just a combination of desperately wanting female market share and desperately wanting to move on from the publicized sins of a masculine past. So, to message its ambitions, the exhausted corporation leans on the employees with the loudest answers.
There’s a lot of interplay between Nike and Wieden+Kennedy when the former asks the latter for a type of ad, but the through line from both sides is a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Based on conversations with people who’ve worked in both environments, there’s a dearth of personnel who are deeply connected to sports. In place of a grounding in a subculture, you’re getting ideas from folks who went to nice colleges and trendy ad schools, the type of people who throw words like “patriarchy” at the screen to celebrate a gold medal victory. The older leaders, uneasy in their station and thus obsessed with looking cutting edge, lean on the younger types because the youth are confident. Unfortunately, that confidence is rooted in an ability to regurgitate liturgy, rather than generative genius. They’ve a mandate to replace a marred past, which they leap at, but they’re incapable of inventing a better future.
Meanwhile, Nike’s growth has sputtered. From Germano, again:
By the end of the decade, the company’s succession planning — and its numbers — were in turmoil. Nike had told investors it planned to hit $16bn in sales directly to consumers by 2020; at the end of fiscal 2019, the figure was barely $12bn.
Nike’s existential dissonance has derailed its journey. Still, the megacorp should be fine, at least in the near term. The issue with a phrase like, “Get Woke, Go Broke,” is that some corporations have a near-monopolistic grip on a market. Nike’s next 10 ads could just be Megan Rapinoe solemnly humming “Fight Song,” and they’ll still be profitable, mostly because those scorned men will keep buying the product.
Ironically, Nike mattered a lot more in the days when its position was less dominant. Back when it had to really fight for market share, it made bold, genre-altering art. The ads were synonymous with masculine victory, plus they were cheekily irreverent. And so the dudes loved them. Today, Nike is something else. It LARPs as a grandiose feminist nonprofit as it floats aimlessly on the vessel Michael Jordan built long ago. Like Jordan himself, Nike is rich forever off what it can replicate never. Unlike Jordan, it now wishes to be known for anything but its triumphs. Nike once told a story and that story resonated with its audience. Now it’s decided that its audience is the problem. It wouldn’t shock you to learn that Carlos hated the new Nike ads I texted to him. His exact words were, “I don’t want fucking activism from a sweatshop monopoly.” He’ll still buy the gear, though, just not the narrative. Nike remains, but the story about itself has run out. Au revoir.