Nike Stays True to Its Brand Values by Pulling the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker

Nike just raised the stakes for what it means to be a culturally relevant brand.

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal, Nike is pulling from store shelves its special edition Air Max 1 USA shoes that had been created to celebrate the July 4 holiday. The shoe design incorporates the image of a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag because it was created during the American Revolutionary War. But as Nike was rolling out the shoe to retailers, the company encountered a hitch: activist, former NFL quarterback, and Nike brand partner Colin Kaepernick reportedly told Nike that he considers Betsy Ross flag to be offensive because it has been co-opted by extremist groups and because it symbolizes a time when slavery flourished in the United States.

So Nike is pulling the Air Max 1 USA from stores. As a Nike spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag” (a bland statement that misses an opportunity for Nike to articulate what it believes and why).

By heeding the advice of Kaepernick, Nike is demonstrating that its relationship with the embattled former NFL quarterback goes beyond a one-time advertising campaign. In 2018, Nike made a bold move by aligning itself with Kaepernick — then embroiled in a bitter dispute with the NFL over his refusal to bend the knee during the playing of the National Anthem during football games. The company released an ad that featured Kaepernick with tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

The ad fostered a public discussion about race, the symbolism of the American Flag, and the role of the athlete in society, mostly because of Kaepernick’s visibility and name awareness. In doing so, Nike added a layer of meaning and cultural context to its famous “Just do it” tagline — a brilliant move that resulted in Nike’s sales to jump. The ad worked for a number of reasons, namely: its audience was (and remains) receptive to brand activism and Nike has taken a stand on social issues for years. By being culturally relevant, Nike connected with its customers.

Nike could have stayed in a narrowly defined lane of relying on Kaepernick to be the face of the brand with more advertisements. But Nike has now shown that Kaepernick is more than a spokesperson. He’s a counselor affecting how the business operates.

Kaepernick is not the only one to take offense with the Betsy Ross flag. In 2016, a Michigan school superintendent issued an apology after students waved the flag during a football game. The superintendent said that the flag is “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.” In addition, Twitter users began speaking out against the Air Max 1 USA along with Kaepernick.

Nike read the social signals, listened to its appointed counselor, and took action. In doing so, the company has sparked a backlash and also a discussion about the history of the American flag and its appropriation in contemporary society. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has ordered the state to rescind financial incentives for Nike, and social media is exploding with criticism but also support and commentary. The ensuing conversation is likely the first time many people have learned that the Betsy Ross flag has been co-opted by modern-day extremist groups:

The long-term impact of the action remains to be seen. For now, the backlash underscores the reality that Nike is raising the stakes for what it means to be culturally relevant: by halting distribution of the Air Max 1 USA, Nike is connecting its actions to its ads.

The Super Bowl LIII Halftime Debacle: What Will Be the Fallout?

My how things have changed.

The Super Bowl halftime show used to feature marching bands and harmless American cheese such as Up with People. Then the show became a high-profile global stage for big-time musicians such as Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. This year, it’s a lightning rod for controversy and an embarrassment for the NFL. 

For the Super Bowl LIII halftime show occurring February 3 in Atlanta, the NFL has struggled to find performers to land a gig so prominent that stars are usually willing to perform essentially for free. That’s because a number of musicians have staged an unofficial boycott of the halftime show to express their solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The Colin Kaepernick Factor

In 2016, Kaepernick triggered a national culture war and a public battle with NFL owners when he took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest oppression of people of color. He became a free agent before the 2017 season, but no team signed him. In the wake of his not being signed, he filed a collusion suit against the NFL that is expected to move forward in 2019. 

Over the past two years, Kaepernick has become transformed from an NFL star into a social activist. His public profile received a major boost when a Nike ad in September 2018 positioned him as a leader who transcends sports. And now the NFL Super Bowl halftime show has done the same although certainly not by design.

The Rihanna Factor

Normally, artists jump at the chance to perform at the halftime show, and it’s easy to see why: since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has ranged from 103 million to 114 million, giving halftime show performers a gigantic stage to promote their music and elevate their personal brands. But when the NFL approached Rihanna to appear at Super Bowl LIII, she reportedly turned down the gig to support Kaepernick. And when someone with Rihanna’s clout acts, others follow. Musicians joining the unofficial boycott include, reportedly, Cardi B, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. The NFL finally confirmed Maroon 5 on January 13, and then Big Boi and Travis Scott agreed to join them. By contrast, the NFL confirmed Justin Timberlake, last year’s headliner, five months before the Super Bowl.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Big Boi, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have faced criticism on social media and from other artists. For example, Roger Waters has challenged Maroon 5 to take a knee onstage as Colin Kaepernick did before the national anthem. T.I. has called Travis Scott selfish for agreeing to perform. Black Twitter has spoken out as well. The show has now become a racially charged PR fiasco for the NFL, an especially embarrassing situation given Atlanta’s prominence as a burgeoning hip-hop center and its reputation as the black mecca of the United States. 

Two Big Questions

In the aftermath of the media storm surrounding the controversy, two questions remain:

  • Will all the drama hurt Big Boi, Maroon 5, and Travis Scott? Yes and no. They’ve lost credibility with other musicians for crossing the unofficial boycott line. But fans are another story. An artist has to try really hard to alienate their fans to the point where they stop buying their music. If anything, the media exposure will help Maroon 5 and Travis Scott sell more tickets for their tours, which are in progress. Big Boi just released two new songs in advance of the Super Bowl. He’s banking on the controversy to help him.
  • Will the NFL be affected? Not on Super Bowl Sunday. Fans are not going to boycott the game because of the halftime show. But it says something that musicians were willing to skip a show that should have been a no-brainer decision to do. The NFL can be wounded (especially when Rihanna wields the sword). The unofficial boycott has called attention to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem controversy just when it seemed as though the issue had become dormant. The NFL would prefer that the Super Bowl buzz focus on football, not on racial injustice. But the artists have stolen the narrative. They have collective power that they could exercise in other ways in the future, such as turning down Super Bowl ad spots.

Meanwhile, the halftime show mess has probably helped the man at the center of the boycott, Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his name in circulation as his grievance against the NFL goes to trial. The graphic below shows the volume of searches for Colin Kaepernick in the United States within the past month. Searches for his name spiked on January 16 when a story broke about Travis Scott reportedly meeting with Kaepernick before Scott joined the halftime show lineup. Interest is climbing again on the eve of the Super Bowl.

I doubt that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have had any impact on NFL viewership. NFL fans, like music fans, are very good at compartmentalizing. Viewership ratings have dipped and then increased over the past few years, and the quality of the play on the field has made the difference. But Colin Kaepernick never said he was protesting the NFL when he took a knee. He was, and is, calling attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. He has succeeded. Musicians have helped him keep the conversation about racial injustice in the public eye. And this conversation is bigger than the Super Bowl.