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The Influencers

They Did It

INFLUENCER: RPA's J Barbush offers a creative’s perspective on the new Nike work

They Did It

The Nike work has the advertising world spinning. Even after several days, like many, I’m still trying to get my head around it. Each person in our industry is asking the same collective question. 

Would I be brave enough to put out such divisive work for my client? 

I like risks. But as a creative director with 25 years in advertising, I may not recommend a campaign so polarising to a client. Yet, as a creative director with 25 years in advertising, I am both jealous and totally in awe of the courage and collaboration it took to get this through. So maybe I would. 

No doubt, they will be rewarded when award season comes around. And hopefully, our culture will be too. 

As reckless as it might seem to the outsider, to jump headfirst into a divisive issue, the move was very calculated. Because ideas of this magnitude go all the way to the top, from client to agency, to focus groups across the country and everywhere in between. They bring in audience insights, run the numbers, and see if the math works. 

Most of the work people are bombarded with each day by my industry has been painstakingly strategised, calculated and noodled to get it to a place everyone can agree upon. As an advertising insider, the lede is not that they made this ad, it’s that a group of people agreed to put it all on the line, and just do it. 

If we unpack the logic, Colin has every right to protest. Most everyone can agree upon that. Doing it in the shadow of the American flag, is what is separating us all. By Nike putting him out there, they are not taking a side, they are merely shining a light on an issue, and letting you decide. 

Nike probably heard both sides in focus groups, how some people love him and others see him as a traitor or an entitled, overpaid athlete. 

The copy in the ad referred to a 'sacrifice'. Unfortunately, many picked up on the reference and used it to pivot the conversation. 

And that pivot took it away from the football field and into a new game. It’s called the 'who sacrificed more' game, and that is one matchup Colin will never win. He will never 'out sacrifice' a fallen soldier, or someone missing their family while protecting our country around the world. He never will. 

But sacrifice is a relative term. And certainly he did sacrifice something in service to something greater. Equality. 

I come from a family of veterans. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who was injured in action during WWI as a roof fell on him. My father served during WWII as well. This summer we buried him, with full military regalia, including a flag ceremony.

I respect the military, the families and all the sacrifice, honour and respect that goes with it. But the point many are convoluting is that this is not about the military. This is about something much more complex. Something most people would rather not talk about. 

Indulge me for a second and let’s journey back from the spin and imagine for a moment that the flag has nothing to do with the military. 

Because, it really doesn’t. 

The flag is not merely a military symbol. More broadly, it is a symbol for our country, and all who live within its borders. Symbolically, figuratively. In every aspect, the flag is yours, mine and everyone's. 

When the Miracle on Ice team skated with the flag, did they do it to honour the military, or the national pride of beating a rival country? Was the flag on the moon meant to represent our fighting forces, or our nation’s success in the space program? When flags are put at half mast, are they to recognise service men and women, or simply pay respect to a person or event?  

The flag is symbolic. And symbols can be manipulated by caustic rhetoric. In the past two years, the flag has been politically appropriated. That was never the intention of such a symbol. 

What the flag represents is both literal and figurative. The stripes are for the original 13 Colonies while the stars represent the 50 states. But there are also abstract meanings. Red symbolises hardiness and valour, white symbolises purity and innocence, and blue stands for vigilance, perseverance and justice.


Even the words of The Star Spangled Banner have nothing to do with the flag as a singular representation of the military. It is a statement on resilience. “Does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and home of the brave.”


If we broaden our view on the flag, and what it represents, then a better case is made for Colin’s decision. Bravery. Justice. What better place to show and debate those qualities than while we are feeling the most reflective and patriotic?

The sad part is right now, the protest by Colin is not going well. It succeeded in opening a conversation, but it wasn't the right conversation. 

The conversation he wanted to have, that we should be having, has been rendered down to a marginalised subplot. The real issue of race in America, is still hidden under the surface, and replaced by a counter-balanced anti-military narrative that’s easier and less awkward for some to discuss and understand. 

And that’s a shame.

If we can never agree on the meaning of something, we can never truly discuss it. If we see two different plots within the same story, the meaning is lost. If we don’t see it about race, it will never be discussed. If it is editorialised as the story of a rich athlete disrespecting the military, then it just spins downward into anger and name calling across the aisle.

But I am hoping the work will give this issue a second chance.

The big win for Nike will not just be a Grand Prix at Cannes. It will be spinning this narrative back to the way it was intended. So that the country can talk about race and equality, in a way the protest had intended. 

If that happens, it will be a big win for us all. And that is the reward for doing brave work. Changing culture for the better. 

Thanks Nike, for doing it. 

J Barbush is VP / Creative Director, Social Media at RPA

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