Spike Lee, Nike, and Corporate Activism

(Photo: Nike)

In early September, Nike unveiled a new advertising campaign to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of its “Just Do It” motto, a slogan that still ranks as one of the most famous in advertising history. Writing for Newsweek in 1998, Jolie Soloman contended that the slogan, coupled with Nike’s partnership with iconic African American athletes such as Michael Jordan, enabled the company to perform “the deftest of marketing tricks: to be both anti-establishment and mass market” 1 Apparently in keeping with this “anti-establishment” ethos, Nike’s thirtieth anniversary campaign was narrated by Black activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests against racial injustice and police brutality led to him being forced out of the league. Kaepernick encouraged viewers to “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Predictable responses ensued on both sides, with critics choosing to burn Nike apparel and supporters rushing to purchase items from the company’s shoe and clothing lines. In addition to featuring the athlete prominently in its campaign, Nike committed to producing a line of Kaepernick apparel and also donated to his “Know Your Rights” campaign, a youth-focused education project that emphasizes higher education, self-empowerment, and safe interactions with law enforcement. On ESPN’s First Take, African American filmmaker and political activist Spike Lee praised the company’s decision to support Kaepernick as “courageous” and contended that “Nike is on the right side of history with this move.” However, as commentators such as Ben Carrington and Jules Boykoff have noted, we should not be quick to anoint the Nike-Kaepernick partnership as a harbinger of contemporary activism. By centering the quarterback in its advertising, Nike can be seen to have expanded its “mythic tradition of appearing countercultural, rebellious and anti-establishment,” even as its own corporate practices belie such progressive signal-calling.

Lee’s praise for Nike did not occur within a vacuum. The director has a well-established history with the company, which includes his own sneaker series as part of the Jordan range. Indeed, reflecting on Lee’s relationship with Nike, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s, can provide a useful window into the company’s broader relationship to Black cultural icons, protest politics, and corporate advertising. In 1986, Joe Riswold, a leading advertising executive at major Nike agency Wieden+Kennedy, stumbled across Lee’s first film She’s Gotta Have It, which was released in August and would go on to gross more than $7 million against a $175,000 budget. Inspired by the character of Mars Blackmon (played be Lee), who refused to take off his Air Jordan sneakers during sex, Riswold reached out to the filmmaker to pitch the idea of using the character in a series of Nike advertisements. The following year, the first in a series of “Spike and Mike” advertisements were filmed, featuring Lee (as Blackmon) shooting the breeze with basketball superstar Michael Jordan. One of the most influential and popular sneaker campaigns of all time, the “Spike and Mike” series boosted Nike’s sales and Lee’s own profile, helping to secure major studio funding for projects such as Do The Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991).

By using Lee as a marketing spokesman—both as an actor and director—Nike chose to align themselves with a dynamic young Black cultural producer who was seen to be unapologetically outspoken on the issue of race. Following his directorial debut, Lee released five films between 1988 and 1992, which provided incisive critical commentary on police brutality, job discrimination, interracial dating, and a variety of other concerns. The ending of his 1988 film Do The Right Thing, which depicted a white police officer suffocating a young Black man, prompted white reviewers to fret that the film could incite Black rioting. In interviews for leading newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Lee contended that racial inequality was “the issue of our time,” and implored readers to “wake up” to the continuing structural barriers faced by people of color across the country. The New York Times’ Stuart Mieher described Lee as a “nexus of black culture,” pointing to his relationships with African American icons such as Stevie Wonder, who wrote a song for his 1988 film School Daze, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said a prayer for the film’s success on shoot at Morehouse College in Atlanta.2

However, Lee’s relationship with Jackson was put under pressure a few years later when PUSH, the civil rights organization Jackson had founded in Chicago at the start of the 1970s, launched a boycott campaign against Nike, calling for “greater social sensitivity” from the corporation and demanding greater Black executive representation and more substantial investment within the Black community. After Nike hit back—accusing PUSH of staging the boycott in collaboration with rival company Reebok—the civil rights organization launched a national boycott, with Jackson suggesting that prominent Black spokesmen for the company were guilty of “race manipulation.” While Lee allegedly agreed to make private inquiries about Nike’s minority investment policies, he was unwilling to publicly support the boycott. Journalist Clarence Page was unsurprised, noting that Nike had betted on PUSH failing to convince African American youths to give up their Air Jordans or to persuade “Michael Jordan, Spike Lee, or any of its other black endorsers to turn their backs on lucrative Nike endorsements.”3 Whatever his private opinion of the boycott, Lee’s relationship with Nike, and the cultural cache it generated among African American consumers, undoubtedly helped the company emerge from the PUSH controversy largely unscathed.

In early 1992, Lee and Nike collaborated on a television commercial that took a more explicit stance on the question of racial discrimination. Filmed on top of a Los Angeles parking garage, the advert featured Lee as an intermediary between a group of white men and a group of Black men who were fighting over control of a basketball court. The ad was produced against a backdrop of rising racial tensions in the city following the brutal beating of Black motorist, Rodney King, by members of the LAPD. A few weeks after the Nike spot had been filmed, the acquittal of the officers involved in the King beating led to the outbreak of the Los Angeles Riots, a period of civil unrest that lasted for roughly one week and resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. Three weeks later, the Lee ad was aired for the first time during the National Basketball Association playoffs. The filmmaker’s contention that “if we’re gonna live together, we gotta play together,” echoed King’s famous appeal during the height of the riots, when the taxi driver appeared on television to ask, “can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?.” Outside of his corporate advertising campaigns with Nike, Lee adopted an altogether more combative approach, accusing the King jury of being rigged and the National Guard of intentionally targeting black people during the riots.

Nike’s “Black and White” commercial was just one in a wave of corporate advertisements calling for racial tolerance in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots, with the Washington Post suggesting that the West Coast uprisings had helped to push a series of “racial tolerance” campaigns into production. For Nike, the advert was arguably its first major marketing intervention on the subject of racial inequality, and an important precursor to its thirtieth anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.4 While the conciliatory tone of the commercial helped Nike to avoid a possible backlash to the campaign, its message of racial unity served to cement its credentials as a business that was socially progressive and attuned to major problems facing American society. In turn, the commercial helped to solidify the company’s relationship with one of the nation’s more recognizable Black cultural icons. Just as commentators appear torn on the benefits of the Nike-Kaepernick collaboration, so too did Lee’s contemporaries worry that his relationship with the sporting giant was “an example of very clever manipulation: they are using an icon to sell a product.”5.

  1.  Jolie Soloman, “When Nike Goes Cold.” Newsweek, March 30, 1998.
  2.  Stuart Mieher, “Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It”, New York Times, 9 August 1987, SM26; Gene Siskel, “Spike Lee’s Mission”, Chicago Tribune, 25 June 1989, M4.
  3.  Clarence Page, “Heart of Nike Issue”, Chicago Tribune, 15 August 1990, N17; Stephen Franklin and Marianne Taylor, “PUSH Boycott of Nike No Shoo-in”, Chicago Tribune, 14 August 1990, N1; Gwen Ifill, “Jackson Asks Defenders of Nike to Think Again”, Washington Post, 17 August 1990, F1.
  4.  Paula Span, “Ad Agencies, Doing the Right Thing”, Washington Post, 29 May 1992, D1.
  5.  Jay Rayner, “Should Spike Lee Do The Nike Thing?”, The Guardian, 21 September 1992, 32.
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E. James West

E. James West is a Visiting Professor and Fulbright Scholar at Elon University, and a Leverhulme Early Career Scholar at Northumbria University. His book, Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History, is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press.