The Nike logo is displayed on a window at a Nike store on March 21, 2019 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Megan Kate Nelson is writing a book about the Civil War in the Southwest, which won a 2017 NEH Public Scholar Award and will be published by Scribner.

It was still early on March 30 when historian Amy Kohout began scrolling through her Instagram feed. An image caught her eye: an ad by Nike promoting its new line of Trail Running gear, which launched this month. It had a throwback feel: a vivid image of a lone runner on a dirt path, bolting along a green bluff above an ocean with inspirational text beneath, urging potential buyers to abandon all of their wayfinding technologies and become reacquainted with “the feeling of being lost.”

These were nice sentiments. But what gave Kohout pause was the slogan in large font underneath the photograph: “The Lost Cause.” And then there was the final sentence: “Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting.”

For historians of the American South and the Civil War, these words are alarming. The Lost Cause was a story that white southerners told themselves after the Civil War to justify their embrace of slavery (it was a benign institution!), secession (a legitimate course of action!) and their defeat in the Civil War (a noble cause in defense of a “way of life”!).

After the war, historian Karen Cox explains, former Confederates used this narrative in a variety of ways to assert white supremacy across the South. This story “was ingrained in people for over a century,” says Cox, the author of "Dixies Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture." “It keeps getting repeated over and over again, and embedded in people’s minds through popular culture.” The film "Gone with the Wind," released in 1939, is the narrative’s apotheosis.

The Lost Cause endured due to its compelling fictions and its memorable phrasing, and it fueled the construction of memorials to the Confederacy in the late 1890s. In August 2017, after white supremacists rallied in defense of two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville and one of them killed anti-racism protester Heather Heyer when he drove into a crowd, it became clear that the Lost Cause remains alive and well in modern America. Historians went to work, writing articles and giving interviews about the power of this narrative as expressed through Confederate memorials. Many towns and cities across the South began removing them from public places.

Given all this, it was shocking to see the Lost Cause espoused in such a direct way in the Nike Trail ad. After reading the text of the ad and doing some research to make sure it was not an April Fool’s joke (the new Trail Running line launched on April 1), Kohout took a image of “The Lost Cause” ad and posted it to Twitter.

“Is this for real?” she tweeted, tagging historians of the American South and the Civil War. “Have any #twitterstorians seen this?”

For the next several hours, historians galvanized in response to the ad, retweeting it and responding to it with admonitions, historical context and sarcasm.

“In an environment where confederate monuments are so visible in the news,” Jenna Magnuski tweeted, “ . . . how?!” “What appallingly tone-deaf, historically ignorant slogan will @NikeTrail choose next?” Jeremy Neely asked. “The Trail of Tears?”

Historians were not the only ones protesting. Sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann replied with hashtags: “#ShouldaGoogledIt #FireEverybody.”

Nike has made such gaffes before, says historian of fitness culture Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. “In 2012, Nike released a sneaker known as the ‘Black and Tan.’ What the company apparently did not know was that this phrase refers not only to the popular beer drink, but also to the British troops that brutalized the Irish in the 1920s.” Nike apologized, but as Mehlman Petrzela notes, “it is surprising then as now that such a major company wouldn’t suss out the multiple, not that obscure, meanings of the phrases they are spending millions to market.”

Unfortunately, Nike is not alone in making historically and culturally offensive marketing decisions. Last fall, the luxury retailer Prada unveiled a new accessory line called “Pradamalia,” which included objects with dark skin and exaggerated red lips, reminiscent of blackface “Sambo” dolls created in early 20th century as racist caricatures. Civil rights lawyer Chinyere Ezie posted about the objects on Facebook, and the resulting social media firestorm caused Prada to remove all of trinkets from circulation and store displays.

Some people on Twitter speculated that the Nike “Lost Cause” ad was a dog whistle aiming to appeal to customers they lost with their Colin Kaepernick ad campaign urging people to “believe in something, even it means sacrificing everything.” It is also possible that “The Lost Cause” fits rather well with Nike’s other promotional campaigns that champion the underdog.

It is more likely, however, that the folks working in Nike marketing chose this phrase without knowing why it seemed so familiar to them. “The Lost Cause” has fallen out of circulation as a common term, replaced by neo-Confederate phrases like “Heritage, Not Hate.” Still, a simple Google search would have revealed to the marketing department at Nike that they might not have wanted to go with this slogan. The entire first page of search results for the phrase “Lost Cause” references its Confederate and Civil War origins. It is difficult to imagine how anyone in the marketing department missed it.

The blunder that resulted provides more evidence that business majors need to take humanities classes and that corporations need to hire humanities majors. Included in their skill sets are the ability to do comprehensive research and to provide historical context and analysis on the language companies might want to use to sell their products. While an advertising degree might equip someone to know if marketing language might lure in potential consumers, it does not offer the historical training to catch this sort of mistake before it is made.

By mid afternoon on March 30, just six hours after the first historians began tweeting, the barrage of tweets offering historical context and sarcastic takes on “The Lost Cause” had an effect. Nike Trail had deleted the ad from its Instagram and Twitter accounts. Many of the shoe stores, running organizations and athletes who had originally promoted their “support for The Lost Cause” had deleted their posts as well. Nike Trail Running’s new line of shoes and clothes debuted last week without any accompanying marketing materials.

Twitterstorians’ protests appear to have been so efficient, in fact, that if you were not on Twitter on Saturday, you likely missed the whole thing. Nike Trail did not issue any kind of apology, and no major news outlet picked up the story.

Historians have good reason to celebrate these results, however. Within academe there has been a lot of debate about the utility of making historical arguments on social media platforms like Twitter. Some think it forces scholars to “sink to new lows of literalism” while others complain that it exacerbates all of the viciousness and inequality endemic to academia itself.

For historians who use these platforms, however, tweets and Instagram posts can become opportunities to create meaningful change. Kohout was delighted with the results of this latest round of Twitterstorian activism, but she was also chagrined that almost no one else seemed to notice the problem with Nike’s slogan. “If ever there was a moment when the general public would know about this and why it matters, I was hoping it was now,” she said.

By the time Nike Trail’s ad disappeared, historians picked up a hashtag that everyone can use to urge businesses like Nike (and their consumers) to be more responsible and historically aware regarding marketing and advertising: #justdobetter.