Why would a person buy athletic shoes for a nonathletic purpose?
> For one thing, the company pays Michael Jordan $20 million to represent
> the adrenaline rush of limitless personal achievement. At the same time
> 350,000 third worlders on the same payroll live a rather less triumphant
> life, beholden to some distant basketball god for their livelihood.
> Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury plucked this chord wittily, but in the
> dumber reaches of punditry some actually believe that Nike is to blame
> for Indonesian poverty. It's not, but the truth hardly matters when
> sales are driven by image.
When there's no substance behind what you produce, image is all you
have. Ernie, you never told me there were "dumber reaches of
Full article follows...
The Rise and Stumble of Nike
By HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR.
Wall Street Journal
June 3, 1998
"The company said . . . it will launch all upcoming Nike Air Jordans,
but not other Michael Jordan shoes, on non-school days. 'This is a
direct effort to address truancy,' said Vizhier Mooney, a spokeswoman
-- Footwear News, March 9
Phil Knight turned up last month at a National Press Club luncheon, and
he had come to plead a case.
It fell to his introducer to relate the glorious part of the Nike story:
How Mr. Knight had started his company in his mother's laundry room and
named it for the Greek goddess of victory. How with a cheap Japanese
supplier, he had launched his first shoe, named for the conquistador
Cortes. How the company grew and the swoosh became a global emblem of
Mr. Knight told a different story: How he had become a "great satan" of
American capitalism. How his company had become "synonymous with slave
wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse."
And how, despite the bouquet of concessions he brought--higher wages and
a vow to cut back on the noxious glue toluene--he expected no respite
from his critics.
Nike has been an unlucky bystander in our rediscovery that life in the
developing world is harsh--that for some people a $1-a-day job in a shoe
factory is the difference between hunger and a meal. As Mr. Knight
pointed out, conditions in Japanese factories when he was starting out
in the import business were worse.
But there's another reason the critics won't let up. Nike's marketing
stands for something that Americans are ambivalent about.
His company conspicuously worships at a classical altar, where strength,
competition and victory are prized above all. The Greeks gave us the
Olympics and the idea of freedom, but their gods were cold and
self-absorbed. And ever since St. Ambrose debated Symmachus, this
tradition has had to contest against a more consoling Christian view of
this life's winners and losers.
As BBDO advertising exec Charlie Miesmer recently pointed out, Nike ads
lay it on a bit thick: "How many drops of sweat can you see on Michael
Jordan's brow and not want to shoot yourself?"
When Mr. Knight set out to found his own company 25 years ago, sneakers
represented a modest market for sweat-resistant footwear. Under his
amazingly potent ads, "athletic shoes" have become an $7 billion fashion
industry. And he wasn't a hypocrite. The values he peddles to young
pagans are his own.
He has suffused his company with the idea of the intense, inwardly
focused competitor. Heroes and hero worship abound at his Nike home
office in Oregon, where every building seems to be named for a sports
star. His Niketown stores are bannered with such mantras as "there is no
Even his rivalry with Reebok, according to Fortune, is pursued with an
uncompromising, gladiatorial zeal. "At the end of a contest, I'd shake
hands and walk away," Reebok's Paul Fireman told the magazine. "I think
he would throw a shovel of dirt on the grave."
The turnabout can be measured precisely. A year ago, Nike was cranking
out its usual 250 new designs a season. It could count on its army of
teenage males to unlimber the parental wallet on a regular basis for a
$120 sneaker upgrade. In industry parlance, the latest Air Jordan was
Nike's "statement product."
Then along came "Titanic," with its more tragic vision of man's fate
than a typical Nike ad. Where the cultural mood is really made, teenage
girls had stolen the thunder of teenage boys.
Suddenly what the industry calls "brown shoes" began to take off: Hush
Puppies, Timberlands, work boots. Buyers were making a not-very-Nike
statement. The "brown" backlash whacked 20% out of sneaker sales,
according to market watchers at Adidas. Nike's profits dropped 69% in
the first quarter.
A rule of thumb holds that 80% of athletic shoes aren't sold for any
athletic purpose, so it gets worse. Other shoemakers began to parody
Nike's promotional style. Candie's, a women's brand, struck an
anti-triumphalist note by stuffing Jenny McCarthy into a basketball hoop
above the slogan "just screw it." The parodies spread to NBC and the
makers of Mounds candy bars.
Not a happy development for Nike, which made a business out of "taking
athletic shoes awfully seriously," in the words of a competing marketer.
Paganism gave us many good things, but it had its dark side too,
exalting cruelty and the spectacles of the arena. Not everyone finds
everything about Nike paganism attractive either. And since icons are
made for bashing, some were bound to notice and make hay of the
uncomfortable tension between Nike image and Nike reality.
For one thing, the company pays Michael Jordan $20 million to represent
the adrenaline rush of limitless personal achievement. At the same time
350,000 third worlders on the same payroll live a rather less triumphant
life, beholden to some distant basketball god for their livelihood.
Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury plucked this chord wittily, but in the
dumber reaches of punditry some actually believe that Nike is to blame
for Indonesian poverty. It's not, but the truth hardly matters when
sales are driven by image.
Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Knight has not been insensitive
to the need to appear sensitive. Nike has made a point of muting its
uber alles rhetoric lately. In a bow to religious pressure from
Cleveland, the company stopped debuting the latest Air Jordan model on
Nor has Nike, for all its contra mundo ethic, forgotten that it has
In March, the company laid off 1,200 employees and dropped out of a
couple trade shows. Nike also sliced its budget by $325 million, though
its CEO stipulated that the real problem wasn't too much spending, but
too much of the wrong kind.
He meant last year's attempt to project a gentler, less grindingly
competitive image. Nike mothballed "Just Do It" for the less sociopathic
"I Can," and inventories only piled up faster in shoe stores. Mr. Knight
has decided a better strategy would be to lay low until the media has
found a new whipping boy and until girl power has gone into eclipse.
He figures this will happen by spring of 1999. He may be right. The
critics will have to comfort themselves by remembering that Rome wasn't
brought down in a day either.
Nothing really matters. Love is all you need. Everything I give you,
all comes back to me.
-- Madonna, "Nothing Really Matters"