Nike, Betsy Ross and that Old-School Flag Probably Isn’t the Real Problem

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about Gen Z and millennials. Their beliefs are changing the world, rapidly reshaping entire industries, like retail. Many of these cost-conscious young people apparently feel no real loyalty to any one brand. Instead, they focus on using the vast online resources at their disposal to search out the best bargains. 

Brands aren’t stupid. The savvy ones are fully aware of this trend, and they’re doing everything in their power to appeal to these younger generations. Being woke, for instance, is a workable, and in some cases, laudable strategy. Even the most cost conscious of us instinctively prefer to align ourselves with organizations that mirror our values. 

Take Nike, for example. The company nixed plans to sell a Betsy Ross themed shoe right before the 4th of July. Some say Nike brand ambassador Colin Kapernick’s feedback contributed to the decision. On the surface, one might thing – cool. Good. They’re listening. But here’s the thing, why listen so late?

The idea for that shoe was probably in the works for months before the public ever even heard about it. If all it took was a few comments from one person to have the company rethink its entire product strategy, its got some deeper problems to address, no? Like, why was there no one at the table who could query potentially racist overtones or questionable historical associations with this particular American symbol earlier?

It’s a common problem: A lack of diversity leads companies to release products, and then later they have to do the media mea culpa when the rest of the world knocks on their foreheads, like, excuse me, did you realize…? It’s so common, now I’m skeptical that many companies actually care. Perhaps the free publicity is worth doing the dance of public apology.

That particular dance seems so constant these days, when I think about the lack of loyalty the younger generations feel toward brands, who can blame them? What is there to be loyal to when some of the world’s largest, most well-known companies can’t be bothered to do the research needed to thoughtfully consider key segments of their consumer base?

I was chewing it over with my friend Kate, and I have to agree with her. She said at best it shows that Nike is lazy and negligent when it comes to research. Perhaps they took the phrase fast fashion to heart at the expense of protecting their brand reputation long term. At worst, it shows a deep hypocrisy. After all, this is the same company that featured Colin Kaepernick’s famous face like an advertising beacon of hope not so long ago. Not even a year later, we’re hit with the Betsy Ross thing? I can’t help but wonder – did they mean it? The Kaepernick ad, I mean. 

“It comes down to Nike not doing their homework,” said my friend Kate. “It would be like printing a shirt with that weird little frog meme without doing the research to learn that Pepe the Frog is an unofficial MAGA mascot.” That’s true, but there’s more to this particular misstep. 

On the flip side, some say we shouldn’t let racists appropriate control of our national symbols. I agree. I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that pointed out the racist mantle associated with the Betsy Ross flag is tenuous at best. When I did a little research, I found others agreed. Ross’ flag was simply a first iteration of our current American flag. It was an early symbol of this great nation. Certain groups attempts to use that old flag as their symbol never really stuck. It’s likely why we often see the confederate flag associated with those groups, and not Ross’ flag.

But even that casts Nike in a poor light. If the Ross flag is indeed a good symbol of the US of A, why the shoddy product execution and the too quick dump and dodge?

“Those who support Nike’s decision largely do so on the grounds that, because a small number of people have imparted their own noxious meaning to a well-known symbol, that symbol is now irrevocably tainted,” wrote Alyssa Rosenberg, in the WashPo piece. “…what if, in a well-meaning effort to deny white supremacists lulz and comfort, we’ve ceded territory to them instead? If everything they express affection for is verboten, we’re denying ourselves the pleasures ranging from a cold glass of milk with a cookie to the music of Taylor Swift. And if we accede whenever racists try to taint a symbol with other preexisting associations, we’re consenting to the spread of poison rather than delivering vigorous antidotes on the spot.”

Well said, La Rosenberg. If you agree with her – and I do – then Nike had every right to use the Ross’ flag on a shoe. The company simply needed to go further, to provide some education and context so that the public had no doubt what the flag means – and doesn’t mean – to Nike.

To do so effectively might have taken as much effort and time as it did to design the Ross’ shoe. The company also would have drawn another line in the sand detailing its beliefs. Perhaps that was too much effort. Perhaps Nike simply doesn’t want to take another risk. But the company made some mistakes here that make me question its sincerity and the firmness of its stance when it comes to equality. I’m sure others do as well.

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