From Pockets to Politics: Commoditizing Social Issues

By Christian Roberts, columnist

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad
Courtesy NBC News
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons license

Major companies such as Nike have extended beyond selling products to commoditizing social issues for the sake of profit.

In a capitalistic society, being bombarded with advertisements has become the norm. However, as society has become numb to the prevalence of brands in our lives, people are unintentionally turning a blind eye to the actions of these companies with respect to social issues.

Why are the same companies that want our money those that are taking a leading role on controversial issues and problems?

Take a look at any social media platform. No one can scroll for more than one minute without a new product being shoved in his or her face, which makes us oblivious to the danger that this presents. Individuals begin to associate with brands and identify who they are based on what they have or what they can afford. Brands have become a way of identifying rather than simply being a product or a service. This has created opportunity for companies, perhaps most prominently Nike, to commoditize social issues for their own financial gain.

One of the most recent examples of the problem is Nike’s advertisement with Colin Kaepernick.

In the advertisement, we see an image of Kaepernick with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It.”

The advertisement aired on September 3, and within 24 hours, the campaign had helped generate $43 million for the company. Within a week, Nike sales has spiked 31%.

With numbers like these, Nike’s primary motivation becomes clear: Show me the money.

Companies have been granted too large a voice in our lives. Not only have they become a topic of discussion at the dinner table, but now they’re a focal point on big questions. Companies such as Nike have powerful voices, and with sophisticated brand development and management, they are viewed as good, even noble and heroic, when seeming to “tackle” social issues.

In reality, however, this mirage is a marketing tool to reach further into our pockets. Consumers need to remember that a brand is first and foremost a commercial entity with a profit-seeking motive. Once that distinction is made, consumers can separate brands from social “goods” and instead meaningfully address social problems.

Collectively, society has to bring attention to issues and push for change by looking critically at the world and asking, how can we improve this? Buying a Nike jersey, even one with Kaepernick’s name on it, won’t address problems of social justice or mass incarceration.

Social change is a product of reflection and action, or a process that can’t result from the influence of a profit-seeking, quarterly earnings-focused company acting for its own interests.

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