Back in 2018, I pointed out how the #MeToo house-clearing at Nike of six sexist male executives caught, contrary to the Theory of Intersectionality, four members of the Diverse.
Now, from Substack’s House of Strauss, a tremendous explanation of Nike’s decline since feminists got their hooks into this most chauvinist of brands.
Nike’s End of Men
Why Nike no longer wants us to Be Like Mike
… For all the talk of a racial reckoning within major industries, Nike’s main problem is this: It’s a company built on masculinity, most specifically Michael Jordan’s alpha dog brand of it. Now, due to its own ambitions, scandals, and intellectual trends, Nike finds masculinity problematic enough to loudly reject.
… Gone is the model of the product appealing to basketball fans because they are basketball fans. It’s now replaced by a model of, say, the product appealing to women because they are women.
And hey, women buy sneakers too. Actually, women buy the lion’s share of clothing in the United States. While women shoppers are market dominant in nearly every aspect of American apparel, the clothing multinational named after a Greek goddess happens to be a major exception. At Nike, according to its own records, men account for roughly twice as much revenue as women do.
You might see that stat and think, “Well, this means that Nike will prioritize men over women in its new, odd, gendered segmentation of the company.” That’s not necessarily how this all works, thanks to a phenomenon I’ll call Undecided Whale. The idea is that a company, as its aims grow more expansive, starts catering less to the locked-in core customer and more to a potential whale which demonstrates some interest. Sure, you can just keep doing what’s made you rich, but how can you even focus on your primary business with that whale out there, swimming so tantalizingly close? The whale, should you bring it in, has the potential to enrich you far more than your core customers ever did. And yeah yeah yeah, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but those were birds. This is a damned whale! And so you start forgetting about your base.
You can see this dynamic in other places. For the NBA, China is its Undecided Whale. It could be argued that the NBA fixates more on China than on America, even if the vast majority of TV money comes from U.S. viewership. The league figures it has more or less hit its ceiling in its home country, so China becomes an obsession as this massive, theoretical growth engine.
Similarly at Nike, male purchasing power is taken as given. They are the Decided Dolphins or whatever extended animal metaphor you wish to use. So, it’s the Undecided Whale of women who present as that glorious bridge to the future and thus drive company strategy. Nike is one of the world’s biggest apparel companies despite lagging with women? Imagine if it didn’t lag?! That’s the thinking, anyway. On to wooing the whale!
Here’s the main issue for Nike in this endeavor: The company, as a raison d’être, promotes athletic excellence. While women are among Nike’s major sports stars, the core of high-level performance, in the overwhelming majority of sports, is male. Every sane person knows that, though nobody in professional class life seems rude enough to say so. Obviously, there’s the observable reality of who tends to set records and there’s also the pervasive understanding that testosterone, the main male sex hormone, happens to give unfair advantages to the athletes who inject it. …
If you’re committed to marketing sports overall, you’re marketing, at the very least, a brand of masculinity. Dominating your opponents isn’t the only way to be a man and doing so isn’t exclusively the province of men, but the act itself is a disproportionately male endeavor, and also something that really appeals to male audiences. The nation that contains more female than male sports fans … doesn’t exist.
Nike sold the public this rented masculinity, year after year, and the public bought it, including the many women who found Nike’s pitchmen and products to be charismatic. Michael Jordan was a hypercompetitive alpha male asshole who viciously humiliated not just his opponents, but his teammates as well. The millions who tuned in for the Last Dance documentary found these dark impulses of his to be highly captivating.
… When you see it, it’s no surprise that the latest Euro Cup ad is disliked. I mean, you have to look at this shit. I know we’re so numb to the ever-escalating emanations of radical chic from our largest corporations, but sometimes it’s worth pausing just to take stock and gawk.
The Wieden+Kennedy Euro Cup spot begins with a zaftig girl yelling, “We celebrate the birth of a new land! The land of new football.” And look, I didn’t want to draw attention to a real-life kid’s appearance, but I’m not mentioning any names and this is Substack, not Twitter, so perhaps we can assume some containment of unflattering descriptions. It’s worth mentioning the choice because typically Nike uses an athletic demigod to sell its product. It’s a tried-and-true model. You want to be like a great-looking athletic superstar with 0% body fat, right? You want to transform yourself into something more similar to peak human performance, correct? Well, you can start by wearing these shoes.
But today we are in the land of new football, where we take dictatorial direction from less-than-athletic minors. After her announcement, we are treated to a montage of different people who offer tolerance bromides.
“There are no borders here!”
“Here, you can be whoever you want. Be with whoever you want.”
(Two men kiss following that line, because subtlety isn’t part of this new world order.)
Then, a woman who appears to be breastfeeding under a soccer shirt, threatens, in French, “And if you disagree …”
… Later, a referee wearing a hijab instructs us, “Leave the hate,” before narrator girl explains, “You might as well join us because no one can stop us.”
Is that last line supposed to be … inspiring? That’s what a movie villain says, like if Bane took the form of Stan Marsh’s sister.
“Yeah, you’re the baddies.”
Now juxtapose that ad not just against the classics of the 1990s but also the 2000s products that preceded the Great Awokening. Compare it to another Nike Euro Cup advertisement, Guy Ritchie’s  “Take It to the Next Level.”
Now this is a hell of a soccer ad. It slickly transports you to a realistic POV of what life is like at the absolute height of competition. … Here’s the problem, insofar as problems are pretended into existence by our media class: The ad is very, very male. Really, what we are watching here is a boyhood fantasy. Our protagonist gets called up to the big show, and next thing you know he’s cavorting with multiple ladies, and autographing titties to the chagrin of his date. He can be seen buying a luxury sports car and arriving at his childhood home in it as his father beams with pride. Training sessions show him either puking from exhaustion or playing grab-ass with his fellow soccer bros. This is jock life, distilled. Art works when it’s true and it’s true that this is a vivid depiction of a common fantasy realized.
Nike’s highly successful “Write the Future” ad (16,000 Likes, 257 Dislikes) works along similar themes.
It is not a politically correct ad, in part because it features cultural stereotypes of the nations involved.
The stereotypes just happen to be dead on, and funny, especially in the section that covers angsty England. Again, art works when it’s true. That’s perhaps not exactly why the ad would be wrongthink at today’s Nike, though. It wouldn’t be made at today’s Nike because it depicts winning as glorious and losing as humiliating. The former can be tolerated, but the latter is just too damn mean. Toxic, even. The new Nike spin on “Just Do It,” is basically, “At Least You Tried.”
… The recent Olympic ads were especially heavy on cringe radical chic, and might have stood out less in this respect if the athletes themselves mirrored that tone on the big stage. Not so much in these Olympics. It seems as though Nike made the commercials in preparation for an explosion of telegenic activism, only to see American athletes mostly, quietly accept their medals, chomp down on the gold, and praise God or country. Perhaps you could consider Simone Biles bowing out of events due to mental health as a form of activism, but overall, the athletes basically behaved in the manner they would have back in 1996.
… There are theories on the emergence of woke capital, with many having observed that, following Occupy Wall Street, media institutions ramped up on census category grievance. The thinking goes that, in response to the threat of a real economic revolution, the power players in our society pushed identity politics to undermine group solidarity. Well, that was a fiendishly brilliant plan, if anyone actually hatched it.
I’m not so convinced, though, as I’m more inclined to believe that a lot of history happens by happenstance. If we’re to specifically analyze the Nike Awokening, there is a recent top-down element of a mandate for Undecided Whaling, but that mandate was preceded by a socially conscious middle class campaign within the company.
This isn’t unique to Nike, either. Given my past life covering the team that tech moguls root for, I’ve run into such people. They aren’t, by and large, ideological. Very few are messianically devoted to seeing the world through the intersectionality lens. They are, however, terrified of their employees who feel this way. The mid-tier labor force, this cohort who actually internalized their university teachings, are full of fervor and willing to risk burned bridges in favor of causes they deem righteous. The big bosses just don’t want a headline-making walkout on their hands, so they placate and mollify, eventually bending the company’s voice into language of righteousness.
In 2018, a New York Times article detailed the middle-up “revolt” within Nike, driven by women who had enough of an “environment that had turned toxic.” …
In the aftermath, the company has externalized the turmoil within through the ads mentioned above, blasting out self-conscious lectures towards the blameless masses. It reminds of how, with the advent of #MeToo, we were treated to sermonizing awards show speech after sermonizing awards show speech from actors blaming broader society, as though Hollywood wasn’t especially depraved. Yes, Joe in Iowa, our grotesque behavior means it’s time for YOU to start treating women better. Got it??
All the guilt and atonement transference make for bad art. And so the ads suck. There’s no Machiavellian conspiracy behind the production. It’s just a combination of desperately wanting female market share and desperately wanting to move on from the publicized sins of a masculine past. So, to message its ambitions, the exhausted corporation leans on the employees with the loudest answers.
There’s a lot of interplay between Nike and Wieden+Kennedy [ad firm in Portland] when the former asks the latter for a type of ad, but the through line from both sides is a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Nike got started in Oregon by Phil Knight, a former U. of Oregon runner, because Oregon is the track and field capital of America (or perhaps the last redoubt of the popular appeal of track as a spectator sport). When jogging became huge in the 1970s, Nike got rich, then came to dominate team sport shoes with Michael Jordan in the 1980s.
Portland’s rise in reputation in the late 20th century as a cool place was heavily tied to the success of Nike and their ad agency Wieden+Kennedy.
On the other hand, Oregon is not big in team sports. I believe it only has one pro franchise, the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers. Knight gave 9 figures to the U. of Oregon to make it a college football powerhouse, which worked for awhile, but bumps into natural limits that there aren’t many black kids within 600 miles of Oregon.
Meanwhile, Portland has been turning into a place better known for tranny Antifas than for sports fans.
Based on conversations with people who’ve worked in both environments, there’s a dearth of personnel who are deeply connected to sports. In place of a grounding in a subculture, you’re getting ideas from folks who went to nice colleges and trendy ad schools, the type of people who throw words like “patriarchy” at the screen to celebrate a gold medal victory. The older leaders, uneasy in their station and thus obsessed with looking cutting edge, lean on the younger types because the youth are confident. Unfortunately, that confidence is rooted in an ability to regurgitate liturgy, rather than generative genius. They’ve a mandate to replace a marred past, which they leap at, but they’re incapable of inventing a better future.
… Nike had told investors it planned to hit $16bn in sales directly to consumers by 2020; at the end of fiscal 2019, the figure was barely $12bn.
Nike’s existential dissonance has derailed its journey. Still, the megacorp should be fine, at least in the near term. The issue with a phrase like, “Get Woke, Go Broke,” is that some corporations have a near-monopolistic grip on a market. Nike’s next 10 ads could just be Megan Rapinoe solemnly humming “Fight Song,” and they’ll still be profitable, mostly because those scorned men will keep buying the product.
Ironically, Nike mattered a lot more in the days when its position was less dominant. Back when it had to really fight for market share, it made bold, genre-altering art. The ads were synonymous with masculine victory, plus they were cheekily irreverent. And so the dudes loved them. Today, Nike is something else. It LARPs as a grandiose feminist nonprofit as it floats aimlessly on the vessel Michael Jordan built long ago. Like Jordan himself, Nike is rich forever off what it can replicate never. Unlike Jordan, it now wishes to be known for anything but its triumphs. Nike once told a story and that story resonated with its audience. Now it’s decided that its audience is the problem.