Some defended the image as simply showing off a piece of clothing. But experts agreed that companies must approach all of their messaging mindful of any possible offenses, especially when critics can quickly take to social media and dominate the narrative.
The balaclava appears sold out on Alyx’s website, which marketed the item for $92. Other items sold by Alyx in collaboration with Nike include a $515 windbreaker and a $229 “mesh shirt with chest pouch.”
As of Wednesday, the balaclava appeared to have been removed from Nike’s site. On a page about Nike’s collaboration with Williams, an option to “explore the collection” leads visitors to a blank Web page.
In a statement, a Nike spokesperson said: “These products were part of a wider Nike Training collection, styled on different models and available in multiple markets around the world. We are in no way condoning or encouraging the serious issue of criminal and gang culture.”
Alyx did not respond to a request for comment. On the company’s website, the balaclava is modeled by a white man without the shoulder straps.
Social media often strips the ability of companies to control the messaging around their products, said Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University. Egan noted that the viral image of the black model included two items — the balaclava headpiece and straps worn around the shoulders — that “in many contexts are very benign and very useful.”
But Egan said that doesn’t erase the risk companies face by taking colorblind approaches to their advertising. Egan noted a Dove body wash ad that also drew ire when it showed a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman in her place.
“Sometimes you do have to bring color or race ... into the conversation and be a little more mindful of how people might react,” Egan said.
In the context of a clothing ad, the balaclava was simply showing off a piece of gear, said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who studies corporate communication. But companies like Nike have to approach their messaging “with an eye toward the potential for causing problems,” he said, especially when social media can create vast audiences for controversy.
“The game is over before you even knew it was an issue,” Argenti said. “Before you’ve even had a chance to defend yourself.”
But, he added, the challenges of social media don’t excuse companies from building a diverse workforce that can spot issues before they raise alarms.
Nike’s balaclava drew attention a few months after Puma was accused of glamorizing teenage drug dealing at a London event. The party coincided with a heightened period of crime in London and was themed to look like a “trap house” where drug dealers and users buy and sell illegal substances. The event space included graffiti, darkened windows and dirty mattresses on the floor, the Guardian reported.
Other retailers have faced similar backlash. In January, H&M apologized for an ad showing a young black boy wearing a sweatshirt that read “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The boy was also shown modeling next to a white boy wearing a sweatshirt that said “survival expert.” The company removed the item and said it would “investigate why this happened.”
Critics of the Nike gear also drew on a surge of knife-related crimes in England to argue that the balaclava promoted images of violence. In one Facebook video that has been viewed 38,000 times, one man said the item “looks as menacing as anything I’ve ever seen.”
“You know, these young people on the streets adore these manufacturers and they buy everything that they sell,” the commenter, Paul Mckenzie said. “We look at the images of young people on the street and they look menacing already, and so Nike decides to bring out a balaclava range which looks absolutely menacing. Maybe I’m getting old, maybe I’m a dinosaur, but this balaclava range looks like it’s quite inciteful [sic].”
In another video posted to Twitter, the comedian White Yardie said it “looks like [Nike is] targeting the young people who are involved in gang crime” amid an uptick in stabbings in London.
Another Twitter critic asked Nike whether the model was indeed wearing a balaclava with a holster. “Don’t act like you don’t know there’s a knife crime issue in London right now,” he wrote.