Demystifying Nike’s Controversial Ad—for Profit

Nike’s “Believe in something” ad—and the controversy surrounding it—is utter bullshit.

This isn’t a bad thing. Bullshit is an incredibly powerful advertising tool. Once you identify it, you’ll realize it’s everywhere. More importantly, you’ll be able to use it in your own advertising—from full-page takeover ads to landing page copy, or even a billboard in Manhattan—if you can afford it.

What is bullshit? In short, its defining characteristic is universality. A more detailed explanation appears further down. But first, let’s see some examples of bullshit. Pay close attention to how the words in each example don’t change.

The ad in question, featuring Kaepernick himself

The same ad, depicting our President—who has been incredibly critical of Kaepernick’s protests:

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There, fixed it for you. #maga

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And finally, the same ad featuring Thanos—the greatest villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

As you can see, the words from Nike’s ad work equally as well in each example — from the ideologically opposed Kaepernick and Trump, all the way to fictional characters.

So how is Nike’s ad bullshit, and why does it matter?

Bullshit, as defined by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, is a statement made by anyone who is “unconnected to a concern with the truth.” In other words, someone bullshits when they say something they really don’t care about. It’s different from lying, because we lie because of our concern for the truth—in an effort to conceal it. For more on bullshit, see this Slate article by Timothy Noah.

There’s been a lot of controversy around Nike’s choice to feature Colin Kaepernick in it’s “Dream Crazy” campaign. But it seems like it’s all for—literally—nothing. With a statement as vague as “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” Nike isn’t climbing to a moral high-ground

It’s not corporate activism. It’s barely a nod to Kaepernick’s cause. If they wanted to provoke Trump, or push for social change with their platform, they would have. Here are just a few ideas for creating such an ad:

  • The photo could depict Colin taking a knee while wearing Nike apparel.
  • The photo could depict Colin taking a knee with other Nike endorsed athletes.
  • The current ad could include a clear statement of Nike’s support for Colin and his protest of racial injustice in America.

Nike did none of those things. On the campaign microsite, issues surrounding Kaepernick’s protest (and Kaepernick himself) are completely absent.

And the TV spot—which @Kaepernick7 recently tweeted—is free of any polarizing statements:

It’s all inspirational, but I can’t see or hear anything about racism in America or the right to protest. If anything, it all seems incredibly uncontroversial.

But if Nike proved anything with its ad, it’s that saying nothing can be profitable. As Tramel Rags explains in his article for the Washington Post, since the ad went public, the “Dream Crazy” video spot has been viewed 16 million times on YouTube, and Nike’s online sales have grown by 31%—a 14% increase over last year’s sales.

So, what does this mean for your business?

There are two ways to profit from polarizing issues. You can take a risk, and try to inject yourself into the national dialogue, or you can simply use bullshit to increase sales. The choice is yours, but the moral high ground comes with added risk.

You don’t need an ad agency or a massive budget to maximize your use of bullshit in advertising. In fact, all you need is some vaguely inspiring words, a stock photo, and access to a graphics designer.

The cheapest way to implement your bullshit ads will be to display them on your landing page or social media channels. And if you have a marketing budget of just a few thousand dollars, you could easily run a highly-targeted brand awareness campaign similar to Nike’s “Dream Crazy”.

Just remember not to say anything.