A Brief History of Nike Using Advertising to Address Social Issues

It's nothing new for the brand or Wieden + Kennedy

Many of the brand's ads over the past 30 years have touched on controversial topics. YouTube
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Nike’s new campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of Just Do It—which technically launched the previous week with Serena Williams-starring spot “Voice of Belief“—blew up faster than any ad in recent memory on Monday due largely to the presence of NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick.

A single image of his face quickly led to an almost predictable round of social media outrage, protest, boycott threats and, of course, satire as analysts weighed in on the potential risks and benefits to Nike’s business.

Yet the brand and its longtime agency of record Wieden + Kennedy are no strangers to controversy. As the Just Do It campaign turns 30, it’s worth remembering that many of the ads created over the past three decades have also touched on major social issues (to varying degrees).

The very first spot in the series, which went live in 1988, lightly touched on ageism by featuring Bay Area icon Walter Stack, who ran approximately 62,000 miles in his lifetime.

One year later, the company advocated for the disabled in a spot starring Paralympian Craig Blanchette.

This 1993 spot starring Charles Barkley was even more contentious; it positioned him as an anti-hero and sparked a conversation about the nature of celebrity that still resonates today as Americans debate whether professional athletes and other famous people should be held to higher standards.

Later in the ’90s, Nike tackled two topics that remained nearly untouchable for many public figures and politicians at the time: sexism and gay rights.

In 1995, Nike advertising director Joe McCarthy told The New York Times that, “We didn’t set out to make a statement about HIV or AIDS” or “be controversial” with an ad starring openly gay, H.I.V.-positive runner Ric Munoz. That may well be true—but surely both Nike and W+K realized that this very understated spot would shock many viewers.

“If You Let Me Play” was even more assertive in casting sports as a form of female empowerment—and it was arguably the first prominent campaign to do so. As legend has it, the W+K team was so desperate for ideas regarding the campaign that they allowed secretary Janet Champ—the agency’s 15th overall employee—to write copy in collaboration with creative director Charlotte Moore.

The resulting spot, which rattles off statistics trumpeting the benefits of organized sports for young women, predicated many later efforts like 2014’s #LikeAGirl, created by Leo Burnett for Always.

Seven years later, “Voices” presents a more mature take on the same subject. It specifically celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal civil rights law regarding equality in education that famously granted women greater opportunity in publicly-sponsored athletics.

The ad included such memorable lines as “I’m a girl. That doesn’t mean I have to wear a skirt.”

2012 also saw the release of “Find Your Greatness,” a longer-form effort that did not focus on any particular social issue but, rather, illustrated the struggles of the common man or woman seeking inspiration to become something bigger in the moment. In a way, it was a culmination of previous efforts from the brand.

These ads may not have sparked as many partisan shoe burnings as the Kaepernick spot, largely due to the divisiveness of our political era. But they do clearly illustrate that Nike has never been a brand afraid to take a few chances—or to weigh in on topics sure to upset certain constituents.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.