The Limits of Equality Branding

Curator's Note

When Donald Trump issued the first travel ban for Muslim-majority nations in January of 2017, Nike CEO Mark Parker issued a company-wide statement censuring the policy as antithetical to the brand's values. A few weeks later, Nike launched its inaugural "equality" collection that, according to the brand's official press release, "support(s) inclusion for everyone." From t-shirts to socks to sneakers, customers can purchase athletic-wear emblazoned with the word "EQUALITY" in addition to Nike's signature swoosh. 

For a limited time only, you too can purchase your very own pair of “Equality” Air Force 1’s. The shoe, a longtime signature of Nike's, has been temporarily updated with a civil rights design twist, just in time for the brand's annual Black History Month marketing initiative. Stamped on the heels of both shoes is the word "EQUALITY" in stark white letters; And hanging from one is a gleaming gold tag embossed with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I have a dream, that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed."

Certainly, Nike's hypocrisy in declaring itself a social justice crusader has not been lost. From unethical manufacturing practices, to its complicity in the exploitation of African American college athletes, Nike's business practices stand in stark contrast to the equality discourse that they seek to imbue the brand with. Since the 1990s, ongoing protests about the company's exploitative overseas labor practices can lead us to assume that "equality" Air Force 1's are likely assembled by a worker from the global south toiling for less than a living wage. What’s more, Nike’s posthumous marketing of Dr. King is ironically emblematic of the insidious consumer capitalism that he fought so vehemently against.

Nike’s “equality" Air Force 1 brings forth timely questions about the commodification of racial justice rhetoric for global brand building.To paraphrase Audre Lorde, can we use the master's tools of corporate marketing to dismantle the house that racial capitalism built? The short answer is, not this way. The mythical power of lifestyle brands such as Nike rests in their ability to extract value from the very social problems they are complicit in perpetuating. "Equality" is invoked not as a process rooted in political struggle, but as ephemeral ethos that you can try on for size. But perhaps in this way, Nike is already living out the nation's true creed-- a creed that waves the flag of "equality" for self-promotion.



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