Nike’s February 2019 advertisement told women to “show them what crazy can do”, but recent court cases and firsthand accounts from women working at Nike reveal a darker side to the sports brand. The advertisement aimed to boost Nike’s reputation more than promote a product, but its use is misplaced when Nike’s workplace disrespects its women. If Nike truly wants to support women’s rights, it should first show women the respect they deserve.
While Nike and other large corporations claim to support feminism, the desire for good press often drives these progressive advertising decisions. These advertisements, dubbed “femvertisements,” raise concerns over being simply catchy slogans and superficial messages about how women can do anything, and Nike’s ads are no exception. If Nike is willing to pander to social justice movements by creating flashy advertisements promoting feminist ideals, it should also make an effort to exemplify these same values beyond blanket statements.
“Nike is a really big brand,” said sophomore Srushti Patil. “As a big company they need to make sure to have a good image. I feel like [the campaigns] are in a way mostly just for public favor.”
Female employees Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston sued Nike in 2018 for workplace discrimination and harassment. The women reported that the corporation paid its men substantially more than its women and that men often got higher-level positions than women. According to an inquiry by a group of female employees in Nike’s Beaverton branch, women spoke of get-togethers with peers ending at strip clubs at the insistence of their male coworkers, as well as occurrences of inappropriate behavior, such as a supervisor bringing condoms to work every day. Additionally, Nike’s human resources department reinforced this culture by turning a blind eye to complaints.
“They want to have a good image so their company can continue to grow,” said Patil. “But their actions in the past haven’t really shown that [support].”
A company that mistreats the women it hires has no right to claim it supports feminism. Regardless of the transgressions of individual employees, the lack of action from Nike to intervene and penalize those employees reflects on its values as a company. Its actions are what define its beliefs, not its advertisements.
Nike also has a track record of treating female athletes with disrespect. Track and field runner Mary Cain joined Nike as an athlete in 2013 with a promising career ahead of her, but she resigned soon after. In an interview with the New York Times, Cain recounts the emotional abuse she experienced from her coach at Nike — Alberto Salazar — who gaslighted her into staying on a diet that made her aesthetically thinner but too malnourished to support her running. Her story echoes that of Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher, whom Salazar also coached.
These actions from Nike directly contradict the messages it touts in its advertisements. Slow-motion shots of women holding medals are not enough to ignore how Nike must either practice what it preaches or stop making these advertisements altogether.
Olympic runner Allyson Felix has recounted her unpleasant interactions with Nike as well. Nike tried to cut Felix’s pay by 70 percent after she gave birth and failed to provide solid solid assurance that she would be able to renew her contract after having children. Nike’s recent advertisements praised Serena Williams for having a baby and “coming back for more,” but the way the company treats its own female athletes directly contradicts this.
“Women are getting penalized for natural things that happen in their lives and I don’t think that it’s fair,” said P.E. teacher Lauren Blazek.
For a company that promotes feminist messages in its advertisements, Nike’s blatant mistreatment of its female athletes casts uncertainty on its true values. In this era of social justice, more companies are catering to intersectional feminists and their ideals in their public relations campaigns. However, their treatment of women behind closed doors often belies these messages, suggesting that their advertising decisions are made for the sole purpose of maintaining good publicity and boosting profits. Corporations like Nike may claim to embrace feminism, but this is often far from the reality.
These controversies reveal a deeper issue in society: that profit trumps progress. The public eye is turned toward feminist ideals, so the corporations bombard them with the same values in their ads to create a sense of allyship and reliability in their brand. Once the fourth wave of feminism washes away, companies will move on to whatever public fixation comes next. If brands believed in bettering society for women and other minority groups, they would treat them more as people than an achievement to check off on a to-do list.
If Nike truly wants women to “show them what crazy can do,” it should promote its female athletes’ achievements rather than using its women for publicity alone.
This story was originally published on The Epic on December 11, 2019.