Nike released an advertisement this week that was well-presented, with an incredibly powerful and much-needed message. The ad featured a montage of pregnant women exercising and moving, with the uplifting message that they, too, are athletes. We see video of mothers at every stage of life’s wonderful journey, from pregnancy to post-partum. Included are cameos from some of the world’s best athletes: Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, and many others. “To every mother, everywhere: you are the toughest athlete,” reads the tweet that accompanied the ad.
But, and this is a big but, this ad represents much of what is wrong with our society. Hang with me for a second.
This is the same company who told one of the greatest athletes of her generation that they couldn’t “guarantee that [she] wouldn’t be punished if [she] didn’t perform at [her] best in the months surrounding childbirth.”
It’s the same company that told another athlete, who was a world championship medalist, that her pay would be halted. Why? They were pregnant. As former Nike sponsored runner Phoebe Wright said, “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.”
Thankfully, since the public outcry of the aforementioned athletes, Nike has changed its policies. But there’s no acknowledgment of that in this ad. There’s no understanding that Nike itself was holding back individuals from doing exactly what they are now holding up and trying to tie to their company.
I’m all for redemption and changing of culture and values. But the problem with this advertisement and why I think it represents a major issue in society is quite simple: It sends the message that our public portrayal is all that matters. The message is more important than actions. That we can simply proclaim to be for something, without actually doing the work to actually and truly support it.
In today’s social media-dominated world, perception is more important than reality. As long as we are perceived to be on the right side, then we don’t actually have to do the work to ensure our actions and values match up with our message. We simply tie our message to our brand or our identity, and that’s enough.
Make no mistake, the ad in question is wonderful. The message is spot on. But to me, it’s akin to a tobacco company putting out a wonderful advertisement on the support of those with lung cancer. Maybe that’s a bit too harsh, but at some point, we have to hold companies and each other for making sure we aren’t just saying the right things, but actually doing them. How about instead of suddenly changing your policy and the first thing you do is run a major television ad, you change your policy and demonstrate with your actions — for at least a year or so — before you capitalize on it for profit.