Colin Kaepernick, who has spent the past two years as the face of protests in the NFL against police brutality and a target of presidential ire, made national waves once again this Monday when he was featured in Nike’s ad campaign for the 30th anniversary of their famous slogan “Just Do It”. Kaepernick hasn’t played since January of 2017 and is currently suing NFL for colluding against his employment. The subject of Kaepernick’s protest is well-understood, but with the intrusion of Nike’s marketing machine, it stands to examine the role of corporations in shaping political discourse.

As of Tuesday morning, Nike shares have fallen 3.2 percent, the hashtag #NikeBoycott has begun trending on twitter and pictures of consumers mangling their Nike apparel have surfaced online. However, despite the the threatening calls by some to bankrupt the sportswear company outright, it’s clear that Nike made the controversial marketing choice with the potential financial impact in consideration. The NFL season began Thursday, and in the 24 hours since the campaign’s inception, Nike has recouped $43 million in mostly positive media attention. 

Corporations riding the coattails of social movements into larger profit margins is hardly a new technique. In the 1970s, Coca Cola ran an innovative advertisement highlighting its commitment to diversity with the catchy jingle, “I’d like to Buy the World a Coke.” Today, this tactic is utilized by countless corporations desperately try to rework themselves to be woke, socially responsible entities that reflect modern-day values—although, this strategy does come with its fair share of poor executions and public relations disasters. Social justice movements have been co-opted by and tied to multinational corporations through sponsorship agreements or merely in aesthetics without substantive support, rendering the role of business in activism unclear and controversial.

The continued persistence and pervasiveness of these practices indicate that corporations have been financially rewarded for participating in social discourse through net positive consumer response. These techniques aim to frame these global enterprises as friendly, progressive institutions, often offering the public a way to engage with their respective political causes through material consumption. By making these purchases, consumers are able to supposedly live their values via their wallets in accordance with the marketing strategies of profit-driven corporations. However, what is often under-analyzed in the midst of controversial debates around politicized advertisements is that these choices to embrace or indirectly endorse certain causes are made with the singular goal of selling more products. Corporate moral posturing has become a ubiquitous and accepted part of our new, capitalist reality.

But a close reading of this particular advertisement campaign raises a question of the core values Nike is advocating for. In simple text written across Kaepernick’s face is the phrase, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” While the now nationally-known football player has certainly sacrificed his standing with the NFL over protests, “sacrificing everything” is a generous stretch of the moral imagination. Black Lives Matter activists have been harrassed and jailed for speaking out, labeled as extremists by the US government, been found dead under mysterious circumstances and hit by cars at rallies. The community organizers that have sacrificed their criminal records, freedom and physical safety would never find themselves featured in national advertising campaigns. The irreverent, transparent exploitation of the concerns about police brutality by Nike is clear and the heralding of Colin Kaepernick as the pinnacle of moral sacrifice—when he has only donated little more than 2 percent of his NFL earnings—is disproportionate to say the least. While the moral standard of “sacrificing everything” is an unreasonably high bar, it is a standard that Kaepernick has self-imposed by virtue of this advertisement campaign. Ultimately, it is reckless for him to suggest a comparable risk to organizers on the ground from his rarefied perch of financial stability.

Nike is similarly obligated to defend its moral grandstanding. Is it not painfully hypocritical that Nike can reap profits for celebrating women like Serena Williams while being sued for systematic gender pay discrimination? Is it not insincere of Nike to renew its eight-year agreement with the NFL, supporting the very organization that is accused of colluding against the new face of their “Just Do It” campaign? And if Nike really did feel so strongly about Kaepernick’s cause, why did it wait two years to make public its support? Consumers who support Kaepernick feel compelled to purchase Nike shoes for the values the brand now apparently stands for, but the tensions between the corporation’s public image and its practices are, at best, an intentional exercise of deception.

This isn’t to say that Nike is uniquely guilty of corporate moralizing. Amazon, another inconceivably wealthy corporate entity, launched an initiative called Amazon Smile, pledging to donate a portion of its earnings to charity, while also engaging in systematic abuses of worker rights. The heart of the issue lies with corporations harvesting grassroots advocacy and rhetoric of liberation and using it to shill products, while only taking largely symbolic stands that lack substantive investment—despite having financial means to do so. As it stands, consumers have frequently rewarded corporations for this tactic, forgiving moral inconsistencies and averting their eyes from abuses in other areas of their business practices. 

Corporate moral posturing isn’t going away. Overarching capitalist pressures compel corporations to do whatever they can to sell more products to consumers, and historical precedence has now established that carefully calculated morality sells. But, as consumers, we still do possess the individual purchasing power to demand corporate moral consistency. If corporations are suddenly people now, perhaps it’s time we, at the very least, begin holding them to the same standards.