Pavel Soukenik

Updated October 12, 2022

Started October 5, 2018

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Corporate Brands and Constitutional Amendments

Four Years Later

featured image

Nike’s ‘Believe in Something’ ad and an edited image and text from Kanye West’s Twitter

The current news prompted me to update and republish this article which I originally wrote in October 2018. It will be a good segue into a problem which was, back then, only emerging: content moderation on online platforms in relation to public figures and political regulations.

Whether they sell electronics, software, or shoes, corporations have to think about their brand image and the values they represent and promote. That’s because buyers have been increasingly conscious of what their choices say about them, and how they ‘vote with their wallets.’

Companies inevitably project their values by how they communicate and act. Unless people have little or no choice, they react to these values. Even dominant companies should ​think ​about ​the ​sentiments ​they ​engender and the share of reluctant or resentful users. And when there are alternatives, the brand’s image becomes critical, especially if there are few real differentiators.

Brands and Politics #

Brands get mixed in social and political debates in several ways: One is when the company directly lobbies for specific policies. Another is when it chooses to voice their opinions publicly – as in Nike’s Believe in Something campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. But it can also get thrown into politics through actions or comments by their brand ambassadors, as was repeatedly the case with Adidas and Kanye West in 2018 and again four years later.

Case Study: Nike #

In 2018, much was written about Nike and their Kaepernick campaign. To refresh the key points: Colin Kaepernick was the most prominent among athletes calling attention to mistreatment of African-Americans by taking the knee during the national anthem. While some people felt this was not a suitable form of protest, it was, of course, perfectly legal.

Kaepernick’s right to take the knee stems from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as upheld by the Supreme Court. Even so, it seems Kaepernick’s peaceful protests were a factor in how he was treated by NFL teams.

When Nike ran the ad with the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” it was considered controversial. There is no doubt that Nike lost some customers who felt strongly that Kaepernick’s behavior was inappropriate. On the other hand, the company took a firm stand in defense of the freedom of expression and civil rights, and it seems it also turned out to be a profitable business decision.

Case Study: Adidas #

While Adidas did not choose to run a politically charged commercial, they were repeatedly thrown into controversies regardless because of the remarks from their collaborator Kanye West.

In 2018, Kanye made several charged statements about slavery. On TMZ Live in May, he said: “When you hear about slavery for four hundred years … that sounds like a choice.” And just as Adidas was promoting new shoes under Kanye West’s Yeezy brand, he tweeted that “We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment.”

What West might have been trying to say in the tweet was that the 13th Amendment should be changed, and not abolished, but that is not what he wrote. Adidas didn’t respond to these incidents, which might have been because – as a German corporation – they lacked a cultural context for, and understanding of, how insensitive and divisive these statements were.

That decision might be contributing to new and bigger problems for Adidas now. In an October 8, 2022 tweet (which Twitter promptly took down for violating the platform’s policies), Kanye attacked the Jewish community. The same day, he released a video on YouTube where he is seen showing porn to shocked Adidas executives during a meeting.

The two recent incidents were so blatant that they do not merit detailed discussion. What I find interesting is that Adidas executives in Europe might have failed to act four years ago because they culturally and politically misunderstood how controversial Kanye’s behavior was.

A call (clumsy or not) to abolish the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution is at least as problematic as a call to abolish bans on Nazi symbols and propaganda from German’s penal code would be.

West’s statement that the problems of slavery were the result of a choice made by African Americans would be comparable to stating that pogroms or holocaust were the result of a choice made by the Jews. How would have Adidas responded to that? This is not an exaggeration but a reflection of grasping the cultural differences between United States and Europe. Sadly, the 2022 statements and actions are only too cross-cultural.

Differentiated Approach #

The view in American society and law is that free speech – even one promoting ideas that historically proved to cause terrible harm – should be protected by law. This does not mean (at least has not meant) that newspapers, TV or online social platforms are obliged to allow and carry all protected speech.

American companies would be wrong and disrespectful if they pushed their views onto countries like Germany. By the same token, Adidas needed to try harder to relate to how insensitive and damaging West’s comments were and to understand how much they impacted their customers in the United States.

Consequences and Personal Decisions #

Even though corporations aren’t people (at least in the common sense1), they do signal values, and those values matter. Damage to their brands can be serious, and its effects can last a long time. I didn’t think of my own buying decisions as being influenced by ethics, but upon reflection, I found instances where it was the case:

While some might deride this as “virtue signaling,” there is nothing wrong – and plenty right – with individuals reflecting on positive values and making personal decisions that are in line with them.

I hope the majority of corporate decision-makers make choices that promote a better world. At the same time, it can only help when the playing field – which we all shape as a society – strongly rewards ethical choices.

  1. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in the case ‘Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission’ in 2010 that the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for communications by corporations. ↩︎

  2. The exposures of bad behavior included systematically targeting the competitor, Lyft, in 2014 by booking thousands of fake rides, deceiving law-enforcement in 2017, spying on its customers, and sexual harassment scandals. ↩︎