Did Nike Turn Its Back On Customers?

Nike’s latest poster ad, celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It” and featuring controversial quarterback Colin Kaepernick, hit the Internet a week ago. You probably know what happened next. Hyperbolic praise from adland. Anger from conservative consumers. Flaming trainers on Twitter. And a back-and-forth among analysts trying to find out if the ad had worked.

We tested the Wieden & Kennedy ad using our advertising insights platform and our audience insights platform – and the video Nike released the day after, along with three other posters from their new campaign. We wanted to answer three questions.

What would the short-term impact be?

Why was the campaign so polarising?

And most important for brand building campaigns like this – what would the long-term effect be on Nike’s brand?


According to our market research, unsurprisingly, the Kaepernick poster was deeply polarising (see verbatims below):

It triggered negative emotion in 35% of our respondents – mostly Disgust or Contempt, sparked particularly by the choice of “sacrifice” to describe Kaepernick’s actions in leading his “take a knee” protest against police violence.

The positive emotions which drive ad effectiveness – Happiness and Surprise – accounted for 34%, leaving 32% feeling nothing at all. In other words, there’s an even split for and against the ad.

Against our ad testing database, that’s not a great performance – it’s a very low 1-Star ad. Asked why they felt that way, our respondents focused on the man himself and his protest: the gap between news and advertising was non-existent.

“Such a sign of disrespect to our country, and he gets a Nike campaign?” fumed one viewer. “He is being recognised for having courage to stand up for justice” said another.

The split mirrors opinion polls asking about the protest, which show a similar divide. If you like the ad and the cause, it’s tempting to view those enraged by it as an extreme minority – but that just isn’t true.

Ryan Stephens, an analyst in our Comms practice team, pointed to a psychological explanation for this polarisation. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has looked at how political divides in the US occur along moral faultlines with each sides responding to different values.

“Haidt’s team have mapped respondent’s perspectives on a few key values and then cut that by political affiliation.” said Stephens, “They’ve found that the left value ‘care’ over all else. While the right value ‘sanctity’ i.e. don’t mess with the flag or national anthem and ‘authority’ i.e. respect the office. What the Nike controversy shows is that Haidt’s statement that morals ‘bind and blind us’ now applies to brands. In an age where brands are expected to take a stand, brands might want to favour stronger relationships with fewer, more important customers. I think this is what Nike did”


So Nike wanted to spark a reaction and it did. In the short-term, that’s great news. Our Spike Rating predicts short-term activation and sales impact and the Kaepernick poster scored very well – a high 4-Spike rating out of 5. We’d expect a strong short-term sales boost, as the backlash fuels the intensely positive reaction among those who do like it.

Early sales data from retail analysts seems to bear that out – Nike’s performance since the ad’s release was far stronger than the equivalent post-Labor Day period last year. .


The broader and more important question is what does it mean for the brand in the long term?  Without Kaepernick, Nike’s other posters – starring tennis superstar Serena Williams and linebacker Shaquem Griffin – score well, gaining 3- and 4-Star scores signifying good to strong growth potential.

Even here, the negative comments tend to reference the Kaepernick campaign, but there are far fewer. That suggests the spillover to Nike as a whole is limited.

And what about the video, narrated by Kaepernick but featuring all the athletes involved in the 30th anniversary campaign? We saw the same polarising effect as before, but less extreme this time – 19% negative, 60% positive, and a 2-Star score overall.

That predicts modest brand growth and matches the average of the poster tests. Even some of the negative responses were more muted – “Great message, wrong messenger. Could have been great campaign”, said one viewer.

Is ‘great message, wrong messenger’ a fair reflection of the campaign as a whole? Not really. The video ad which starred Kaepernick actually created the most happiness and least neutral reaction of anything we tested – even as it underlined what a divisive figure he is.

Without him, nobody would be talking about a fairly generic Nike campaign. With him, the brand’s sky-high fame and name recognition get yet another boost, but there’s a hit to emotional response.

When ads get involved in politics, that’s always a risk. Yes, Nike might have scored higher if the video ad had made Kaepernick less central – but that’s never going to be how they think. It will be very interesting to watch what Nike’s rivals do. Generic sports ads will get lost in its slipsteam. But a brilliant campaign that was less divisive could be an in-market winner.

For now, our brand testing suggests the net outcome for Nike, once the hullaballoo dies down, will be a modest positive. Its marketers can sit back and enjoy the acclaim, the awards, the sales bump and the smell of burning sneakers – with a little bit of growth there too.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand tracking tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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