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How Nike Uses Liberal Multiculturalism to Hide Abuse

Nike’s social justice ad campaign exploits consumer gullibility and conceals worker misery.

A billboard featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is displayed on the roof of a Nike store on September 5, 2018, in San Francisco, California.

“If people say your dreams are crazy…” an unseen man says in the new Nike ad. On screen, a child wrestler with a leg amputation goes for the win, a Muslim woman boxes and a refugee scores for the national team. “Good,” the voice says. “Stay that way.”

The ad cuts to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback blacklisted for kneeling during the national anthem to protest the police killings of unarmed Black people. It is a breathtaking moment. It is also a liberal alibi for massive, ongoing harm.

Behind the Nike swoosh is the struggle of a million workers who stitch Nike shoes and gear. They are part of the 70 million-strong global garment industry workforce, fighting for better pay and conditions even as their jobs are automated. When we buy Nike’s seemingly rebellious liberalism, we buy into reformist politics that excludes their dream, which is to earn a living wage.

Express Yourself

“Yo man, your Jordans are fucked up,” the friend taunted Buggin Out, whose Nikes were scuffed by a passerby. Everyone in the theater laughed. It was 1989 and we sat spellbound by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing because the scene reflected our lives. People took their shoes way too seriously. It was why I never wore Nikes. I had friends who were robbed at gunpoint and walked home in socks.

Why the violence? It’s not just a ’90s thing. It happens now. The answer: People hunger for status. They stare at athletes and celebrities, who float in a world of wealth. Stars wear nice clothes and glittering watches. They drive cars like spaceships on wheels. If we can’t be them, we can at least wear what they wear and borrow the décor of their lifestyles.

Since the 1920s advertising revolution, capitalism has sold commodities by associating them with an identity. Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations,” began this with World War I propaganda and then sold his “psychological warfare” to American companies. He framed their products not as things to answer needs but as symbols to satisfy desires. He wrote in his 1928 book Propaganda, “A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because [a person] has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol.”

Advertising sold people symbols like instant food, which signified modern convenience, or soap “scientifically” guaranteed to kill germs. Each generation found its desire for safety or upward mobility or rebellion quickly commodified. In the television series Mad Men, 1960s ad executive Don Draper’s meditation led to the “I Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial. A Coke is just corn syrup and water in a bottle, but in the alchemy of advertising, it was reborn as a symbol of the Hippie Counter Culture.

Six decades after the release of Bernays’s book, Nike tapped into his propaganda model for its 1988 Just Do It campaign. It made sneakers into symbols of American independence. The first ad showed an 80-year-old man cheerfully jogging the Golden Gate Bridge. Nike sold an athletic Horatio Alger story where normal people lift themselves up with extreme effort. The human spirit shined through sweat-soaked faces.

Three decades later, Nike relaunched the Just Do It campaign. Today, capitalism is global and it must respond to the collective desire of an audience beyond America. Again, Nike tapped into the Horatio Alger lift-yourself-up mythos, but now the achievement is not just athletic prowess but a multicultural liberalism. In Nike’s new ad, refugees become national superstars. A young woman is both homecoming queen and football player. A young Black girl from Compton reigns supreme in tennis. Finally, Colin Kaepernick looks into the camera and poof, Nike becomes a symbol of justice.

Yet it isn’t. Take a look at the label. You can read where the factories are located. They are where a struggle involving millions of people won’t be made into any commercial.

Behind the Swoosh

Indonesia. Vietnam. Honduras. I thumbed through labels at Macy’s. Every shoe had a Nike swoosh. Every shirt had a number like Michael Jordan’s 23 or a famous American face on the front. Yet when I looked inside, the labels all pointed back to Global South nations.

Nike sells rebellion to Global North consumers through the faces of well-paid celebrities on its apparel while its goods are made primarily by people in the Global South who barely eke out a living. When they fight for better wages or working conditions, their heroism does not make them eligible to become rebels, mythologized in Nike’s ads.

Nike is a criminal enterprise. Capitalism is a system of theft and Nike is a near-perfect model of it. Phil Knight, the founder and CEO has a net worth of nearly $35 billion. Jordan earned $100 million from Nike and other deals. Lebron James signed a lifetime deal with Nike worth over a billion. Now Kaepernick is next in line for more ads, a sneaker line and jerseys — all of which will add up to a pretty penny.

Where does this vast sum of money come from? Nike is a corporate vacuum sucking up the surplus value from workers. It has a million laborers, mostly women, in 42 nations, including Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Each country gets paid its own rate. Workers line up in rows near conveyor belts or sewing machines for long hours. In Indonesia, the assemblers get paid $3.50 per day. In Vietnam, they are paid around $42 a week or $171 per month.

The workers receive anything close to the product’s final value. When a Nike sneaker is put on the store shelf, it gets a near 43 percent retail markup and consumers in the Global North buy it for nearly a $100. Our money goes to store employees, managers, regional managers, the CEO, celebrity advertising and the accounts of stockholders. The workers — mainly women in the Global South — who are exposed to toxic chemicals, faint from heat, forced to work overtime and whose wages are sometimes stolen — never see that much-needed money.

This system has many apologists, including among liberals. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff infamously wrote a series of articles saying in essence, sweatshops are good. “People always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop,” he wrote in a 2009 Op-Ed, “No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.”

He is right in the short term, but his limited, liberal imagination doesn’t see the longer trajectory of capitalism. Nike already has enough money to raise the pay of workers to more than a living wage. Instead, it chose to move out of nations with rising wage demands like China to go to Vietnam, where labor is cheaper.

Meanwhile, new 3D printing technology is making fully automated factories possible. Sweatshops could become obsolete — along with the workers who currently depend on them for survival. Against this, people protest. They fight to keep the jobs they have. In Indonesia, demonstrations against Nike cutting orders were held in 2007. One sign read, “Nike is a Blood Sucking Vampire.” In July 2017, workers and students held a Global Day of Action Against Nike after a watchdog group, Workers Rights Consortium, got inside a Nike plant in Hansae, Vietnam, and found wage theft, padlocked doors and workers fainting from heat.

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the SITRASTAR union protested outside of the Nike factory and store after the company stopped production at their factory. More than 350 union members were jobless. “If there is no peace for us,” union leader Waldin Reyes shouted, “Let there be no peace for them.”

It shows the double bind of Global South workers. They have to fight for higher pay and humane conditions and fight to keep the sweatshops. Without them, they’d plummet into severe poverty.

Unlike the customers buying Nike for an imaginary status of rebellion, here are people fighting for a very real goal: survival.

The People’s Shoe

“Don’t believe you have to be like anybody,” Kaepernick says in the ad, “To be somebody.” We see a brain tumor survivor who ran the Ironman race and Lebron opening a new school. Each mini-story is a triumph over great odds. Kaepernick’s soulful stare sells the ad because he sacrificed his career to silently protest innocent Black people being killed by the state.

It worked. Once more, Americans line up to buy Nike’s symbolic rebellion. Sales spiked after the new ad. It makes me uneasy. In the ’90s, impressionable youth bought Nikes because they represented athletic glory and status. Now I fear some will buy them because they’re convinced by Nike’s suggestion that they represent the struggle against anti-Black police violence.

Too often, they can’t afford the sneakers. Nike’s CEO and the stockholders are at the center of a vast money vacuum. They exploit low-wage workers at the factory floor and exploit customers, many of whom are youth of color, who are desperate to buy meaning for their lives.

Imagine a different ad. One where a union leader like Waldin Reyes smiles on screen and proudly holds up The People’s Shoe, a sneaker line made by a worker’s cooperative. No billion-dollar CEO. No billion-dollar celebrities. Instead the workers wave to the camera as they leave the shop early to see their children. The camera follows one woman to her brightly lit home. Her clothes are drying on the line as her family sits at a long table, laughing and eating. She takes a People’s Shoe, shows it to the camera and says, “Just Organize.”

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