Nike is again embroiled in a controversy it may not easily shake, and this time around it has nothing to do with sweatshop labor practices. An ad spot for the company’s new Pro-Combat football apparel line has hit prime time and not everyone is thrilled with what they’re seeing.
The setting is West Virginia and the backdrop is a decapitated, blackened landscape with coal pouring out onto the football field. The focal point, an avatar version of a University of West Virginia football player, is holding a ball up high as if to announce that he is now king of the dead mountain.
West Virginians certainly know a dead mountain when they see one. The state has hundreds that no longer have peaks, as they have been blown apart only to expose tiny seams of black coal, the remnants of which have been polluting watersheds all across Appalachia. Groundwater is tainted and the poor folks who live in the shadows of the blast zones are terrorized every time an explosive is detonated.
Meanwhile, Nike’s narrator chimes in as the player does a victory dance, announcing that, like West Virginia coal miners, football players too put their lives at risk every time they step onto the field.
It’s combat baby.
It’s also a comparison that doesn’t sit well with Jeff Biggers, author of "Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland," who has witnessed first hand the economic and environmental destruction hat plagues the region.
"What?" asks Biggers, who was the first to publicly criticize Nike for its insulting ad. "Over 104,000 coal miners have died in disasters and accidents in our mines; over 10,000 coal miners still die each decade from black lung. How many football players die?"
It’s a question Nike won’t answer. A spokesperson did not respond in time for publication.
Nike, whose revenue exceeded a whopping $19 billion last year alone, may want to go looking for a new advertising company, one that does not patently exploit dead miners and the disastrous practice of mountaintop removal just to earn another buck.
Wieden+Kennedy, an ad agency based in Portland, Oregon, designed the overall concept for the line of Nike products, which embraces a macho, Army-like recruiting esthetic. On their website W+K writes of their Pro-Combat campaign, "Where our competitors were positioning their equivalent product as protective, our strategy was to position the apparel as an offensive tool."
However, W+K told me they were not responsible for the West Virginia advertisement in question. Nonetheless this boutique ad agency, known for their rock n’ roll coke parties and hipster veneer, even flying in the Beastie Boys for an employee-only soiree a few years back, has a bit of a sordid history when it comes one of their most infamous clients.
W+K was the brains behind fashioning Nike sneakers as feminist accessories back in the 1990s, despite the fact that the very shoes they were peddling were being manufactured largely by underage girls. At the same time the company even tried to entice Ralph Nader to appear in an ad to sell Nike sneakers, where the trusted consumer advocate was to take a jab at the shoe company for their smarmy sweatshop operations.
"Look at the gall of these guys," Nader said in disgust.
While W+K may be distancing themselves from the most recent campaign flop, they are nonetheless emblematic of Nike’s obvious disconnect between the art of hawking products and the reality of what they are actually exploiting — in this case the environment and coal miners, of which 29 perished in a deadly explosion in West Virginia last April.
Hypocritically, Nike has lately been working to paint their company and products as "green". On August 17, Sarah Severn, director of stakeholder mobilization for Nike claimed, "If we are to remain leaders in the green economy, then we have to be relentless in our pursuit of clean energy. We have to constantly evaluate all aspects of our energy footprint."
Seems Nike should constantly evaluate all aspects of their grotesque advertising campaigns as well.
Joshua Frank is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press. He can be reached at [email protected]