Just Meme It

Just a few days ago, Nike unveiled the latest iteration of their “Just Do It” campaign. Over the course of the 2ish minute advertisement, multiple inspiring stories are shared–and dare the audience to set lofty goals, and dream ambitious dreams. The final voiceover at the end of the clip speaks directly and states, “don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.” Finally, on the screen the text ““It’s only crazy until you do it,” is displayed before cutting to the company tagline, “Just do it.”

In almost any other circumstance, there would hardly be anything controversial about this advertisement. Except for one small detail; the voice narrating the advertising belongs to none other than Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49er’s quaterback  had become nationally-known in 2015 when he began protesting police brutality and  mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities in the United States. During NFL games, instead of standing for the National Anthem Kaepernick sat on the bench. In an interview he explained that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick was later encouraged by Army Vetran Nate Boyer to instead take a knee during the anthem, which he continued to do until he eventually lost his NFL contract. Kapernick’s protest has spread throughout the NFL, and to athletes across many sports as well.

Of course, a lot of people were really unhappy about Kaepernick’s protest. They claimed that it was incredibly disrespectful to the US flag and to the nation’s armed forces. Ironically, the specific protest was recommended by an Army Vetran and is representative of the First Amendment right that the US military supposedly protects and defends. Most notably, President Trump would regularly go on Twitter tirades complaining about the athletes’ protest. These tweetstorms likely only added fuel to the fire, and the NFL anthem controversy continued.

So when Nike started their new campaign featuring Kaepernick front and center (and timed the advertisement’s release for the start of the NFL season as well), all of these controversies and debates were once again stirred up. Of course, the President was pissed off about the whole thing:

In protest, many people began destroying their Nike products and calling for a general boycott of the company:

A lot of these responses were quite comedic, especially given that they were destroying Nike products… that they had already paid for. In other words, there wasn’t really any effect on the company’s bottom line when a bunch of angry conservatives started lighting their Nike shoes on fire. In Colorado Springs, CO a local store decided to liquidate all of their Nike products and announced a general 1/2 off sale. Its owners state that this is in direct response to the new Kaepernick Nike ad, but it’s unclear to me how exactly this is really a boycott on Nike. The store had already paid Nike for those products, so perhaps its also a way for them to cash in on the phenomenon? Regardless, one fact remains, Nike’s sales have actually increased rapidly in response to the new advertisement.

You set fire to your shoes… that you already paid for. Sure, it sends a message, but Nike still has your money and now you have burnt shoes.

And, perhaps more significantly, in addition to the overtly political responses to the Nike ad campaign, the Internet has taken to doing what the Internet does best. Within just a few days of the original ad being released, the memes began flowing. Of course, I’m no stranger to the fact that just about anything that gets posted online has the potential to become “memed.” The moment something is released on the Internet, it is opened up for anyone to make a copy, make their own modifications, and reupload. And this was certainly the case with the Nike Kaepernick ads as well.

The original Nike ad has a distinct style. A close-up black and white image, with simple white text overlaid. Their logo and tagline are centered at the bottom of the image. These simple formatting features are highly exploitable–that is they can be easily remixed.

Many of these meme instances simply referenced other memes and TV shows, and were generally free of any explicit political messaging. Though the content varied greatly, the general format followed that of the original advertisement:

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Of course, I say that they don’t explicitly contain political messaging, but not that they are entirely detached from politics. By mere fact that these meme instances are copying the format of the Nike advertisement, they are inextricably connected to Nike and Colin Kaepernick, and thus the Anthem protests as well. However, these instances are still nonetheless less overtly political than some of the other instances that were widely circulated:

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Regardless of how blatant the political messaging of the meme instance was, it was still connected to the Nike campaign, and thus Kaepernick’s actions, by nature of it following the same visual style and formatting. The rapid remixing and recirculating of these new meme instances is a property afforded by image manipulation software, online communities, and near-ubiquitous Internet access. It underscores how widespread and accessible online participatory culture is; within just a few days just about anybody is able to take the original images and create their own interpretations.

However, this increased access to online participation also affects the original image and message as well. By using Kapernick’s image and story in their advertisement campaign, Nike has potentially also surrendered any ability to fully control it. In what could be described as a double-edged sword (for both Nike and Kaepernick), allowing the image to become “memed” can cause the message to remain in the national conversation and continue to spread. However, the continual remixing and recreation of new meme instances by online communities also waters down and diminishes the meaning of the original protest. By the time somebody is photoshopping an image of Bill Clinton to match the style of the Nike ad, it is already several steps separated from Kapernick’s original protest, and his original message about the treatment of African Americans in the United States.

How many people using Nike’s paid Snapchat filter on their photos are actually doing so to join Kaepernick’s protest? How much is Nike supporting the message, versus how much is it just the corporate giant cashing in on a political movement? And how much will this amplify Kaepernick’s message–or will it just become obfuscated?

These are the questions that I will be paying attention to over the next several weeks. It has only been a few days since the initial release of the Nike advertisement, and thus impossible to determine any solid responses to any of these.

However, the mere fact that so many new meme instances have been created and circulated in such a short timeframe is somewhat significant. This “speed of meme” has gotten faster and faster in the last several years, and will likely only continue to increase. Parodying and remixing advertisements or social movements certainly isn’t new, but the near-instantaneous speed of it has never been seen before. It’s no longer a matter of if something will be “memed,” but when. Inevitably there will be some community in some corner of the Internet that will take something and run with it.

And, given the right circumstances, it will become widespread and directly influence public discourse and events in the physical world.

Kapernick takes a knee. Nike makes an ad. And the meme machine marches on.

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