The Adidas spokesman who teased the company’s desire to sign Colin Kaepernick if he secures a spot on a team roster this NFL season took care to clarify that the company “isn’t in the business of activism.” He was right. Adidas is in the business of business, and its call on Kaepernick is a master class in corporate acumen, or cynicism.
The big “if” in Adidas’s announcement is at once unsurprising and revealing. The declaration earns the company publicity, and the caveat removes any risk: Assuming a man universally beloved by their target demographic who already has gained an insane amount of exposure gains even more exposure and validation, Adidas will capitalize on it by sponsoring him. Never mind that Adidas can’t argue it only endorses celebrities who play on sports teams — the Seattle Seahawks didn’t sign Kendall Jenner last season either.
The calculus in the Kaepernick case should draw our attention to other instances where we’ve been eager to applaud companies for getting political. While businesses may prefer to do what’s right, they rarely take the leap unless what’s right is also what’s likely to be profitable. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, said it expected to lose customers over its decision to stop selling assault-style rifles after the Parkland, Fla., massacre — and it sure looked gutsy this week when it opted to destroy those it had in stock rather than return them to manufacturers. Yet Dick’s actually saw a bump in stock prices following its initial decision, and its gun sales were already slipping.
Besides, when a company lands in the center of a controversy as Dick’s did (shooter Nikolas Cruz purchased a weapon there), taking a stand is often the safest option. Otherwise, you could end up like Uber, which inspired ire when it didn’t turn off surge pricing during airport taxi strikes against President Trump’s travel ban. The advertisers who pulled their products from Laura Ingraham’s show after she insulted Parkland student David Hogg knew this: Hogg had called on consumers to press the companies, and they chose to brand themselves as heroes rather than holdouts.
Companies opt for these same ploys not in response to specific events but as part of their everyday messaging. Sometimes, they miss the mark on subtlety. But a Tiffany ad presenting a same-sex couple’s engagement is no different from Burger King wrapping Whoppers in rainbow paper, or even Dodge trying to sell trucks with a Martin Luther King sermon — it just avoids the ham-handedness that leads us to scoff instead of spend.
None of this is bad in itself. Progressive thinking may encourage progressive marketing, but there’s a feedback loop: Because products and the people who sell them play such a prominent role in consumers’ routines, progressive marketing can promote progressive thinking, too. And companies certainly influence other companies. Dick’s made its move on guns, and Walmart and L.L. Bean soon followed. The reaction to Adidas’s offer of sponsorship for Kaepernick could even catch the attention of team owners who last season were queasy about the political implications of hiring him, and prod them to do some rethinking.
Still, it’s worth stepping back to recognize what’s going on here. Brands are really good at branding, and we’re really good at buying into their projection of social responsibility. It’s pretty to think that companies have values that nullify their loyalty to the bottom line and unpleasant to imagine that society has lost its soul to the clutches of capitalists and corporatists. We want companies to be better so that we can be better, too. We’re able to go about our lives with less self-loathing if we feel that by ordering a Lyft instead of an Uber we’ve satisfied our daily morality requirement.
Adidas’s spokesman said in his discussion of Kaepernick that he didn’t want people to see the company as “taking advantage of this noise” about the quarterback. But hyping up the possibility of a Kaepernick deal without coming anywhere close to committing is nothing if not noisemaking. It’s also a reminder of what, besides soccer balls and sneakers, these companies are selling us.