As Nike Faces A Boycott Over Its Colin Kaepernick Campaign We Remember Some Of Fashion’s Most Controversial Ads

#JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike are trending on Twitter

Colin Kaerpernick

by Ruby Norris |
Updated on

On Monday 3rd September American Football player Colin Kaepernick posted a picture of his face along with the inspirational message “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” on his Twitter account. Sportswear giants Nike then retweeted the image, announcing the start of their latest advertising campaign and new partnership with the quarterback, one of the first NFL players to protest against police brutality and racial injustice during the US national anthem back in 2016.

Nike described Kaepernick as "one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation", and sports and TV personalities have flocked to social media to show their support for new campaign marking the 30 year anniversary of the original 'Just Do It' ads (Serena Williams, who also features in the campaign, tweeted she was “especially proud to be a part of the Nike family today”). But, as President Trump labels Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick as a "terrible message", the campaign has also sparked a phenomenal backlash in from conservatives and opponents of the NFL players' movement in America.

The hashtags #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike are trending on Twitter alongside videos of customers burning their Nike shoes, images of cutting the brand's famous tick out of their products and pledges to only shop at Nike's biggest competitors. Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, the protest surrounding the latest campaign saw shares of Nike's stock 'fall by 2.9% on Tuesday'.

Despite the backlash, it seems the divisive nature of the campaign and the 10-year deal with Kaepernick serves to benefit Nike. According to Apex Marketing Group, in the first 24 hours since the announcement the brand is reported to have made over $43 million in media exposure. While the buzz around Nike's ad is the topic of the moment, it's certainly not the first time a label has polarized opinion with a campaign. Adverts and brand campaigns have long been vessels for raising awareness and effecting change, but the lines between creating a conversation and scandal are often blurred.

Under the helm of art director and provocateur Oliviero Toscani, United Colours of Benetton regularly sparked global backlash with politically-charged ads in the 1980s and '90s, but in 2000 Toscani was fired from the house in 2000 after his Sentenced To Death campaign featured 26 death row inmates staring to camera. The ad caused sales to plummit as murder victims’ families lobbied retailers and consumers to boycott the brand. Other labels such as Tom Ford, Dolce & Gabbana and MiuMiu have been criticised for a poorly-judged shock factor or sexualisation and even seen their ad campaigns banned

And with Edelman's Earned Brand Study suggesting 57 percent of consumers will buy or boycott a brand because of its position on an issue, the stakes are high when it comes to an advert sparking a global debate.

As Bob Dorfman, a marketing executive at Baker Street Advertising, tells Bloomberg the polarizing tactic is "definitely smart business" for Nike, he also warns "it's not a move that any company can make." With these words in mind, we take a look back at some of the good, the bad and the ugly of controversial ad campaigns.


Controversial ad campaigns

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CREDIT: United Colours of Benetton

United Colours of Benetton, 1991

An ad showing a priest and a nun in clerical vestments, kissing caused a huge uproar from the Catholic Church. This sparked outrage from the Roman Catholic Church. Earlier that year, after a campaign for the brand featured coloured condom's during the AIDs crisis in the early Nineties, Oliviero Toscani told the New York Times: "I have found out that advertising is the richest and most powerful medium existing today, so I feel responsible to do more than to say, 'Our sweater is pretty.' "

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CREDIT: United Colours of Benetton

United Colours of Benetton, 1992

In 1992 Benetton used an image previously featured in an issue of LIFE magazine of gay activist and AIDS victim David Kirby on his death bed. The brand came under heavy criticism from AIDs activists accusing the brand of exploiting Kirby's death and fear-mongering, they also launched a global boycott. However, according to Vogue, Kirby's father Bill stated, "Benetton is not using us, we're using Benetton…If that photograph helps someone…then it's worth whatever pressure we have to go through."

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CREDIT: United Colours of Benetton

United Colours of Benetton, 1996

As well as being called out for the gratuitous nature of the 'Three Hearts' ad, Toscani was also branded a racist over the terminology used. He maintained he was using his advertising campaigns to address the issues of racism and equality.

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Diesel, 1995

Diesel's ad shot by famed photographer David LaChapelle depicting two wartime sailors kissing caused a huge stir in it's bid to promote equal rights back in 1995.

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Diesel, 2017

David LaChapelle joined forces with Diesel again in 2017 for a politically-charged, anti-division campaign. Despite not directly referencing President Trump's proposed wall at the Mexican border, the campaign sparked backlash amongst his supporters.

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Sisely, 2007

It's not only adverts evoking a social or political message which can spark a scandal. This Sisley - United Colours of Benetton's sister brand - ad was banned in 2007 for glamourising drug use.

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Tom Ford, 2007

Tom Ford came underfire for the overtly-sexualised and sexist imagery used in their campaign shot by controversial photographer Terry Richardson in 2007.

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CREDIT: Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana, 2015

After Elton John hit out at Dolce & Gabbana and backed the #BoycottDolceGabbana movement over the designers' controversial comments on IVF, the label faced further backlash when a problematic ad campaign from 2007 resurfaced. The banned images were criticised for appearing to 'glamourise gang rape'. American's Next Top Model judge Kelly Cutrone brought the images to the public's attention when she tweeted: "I guess simulating gang bangs are fine – but IVF and same sex marriage are not – life according to @dolcegabbana."

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