How Nike’s Advertising Could Drive The LGBT Equality Push In Sports




I’m not sure there’s a company that understands advertising better than Nike, which has, for the last 20 years, used its “Just Do It” television ads to become the biggest sports apparel company and one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

Nike has used the “Just Do It” theme to tie an inclusive streak through its past two decades of advertising, essentially telling its customers that they don’t have to be Jordan or LeBron or Serena to get out and enjoy sports or, as one ad begged, to find their greatness. Sometimes that theme of inclusivity is more subtle, as it is in the recently released ad for LeBron James’ new shoes. Sometimes, Nike chose to smack its viewers over the head with it, as it did in this 1995 ad promoting equal opportunities for women and girls in sports:

The simple brilliance of that ad is amazing. It takes an issue that seemed to be long progressing toward a solution — in 1995, Title IX was already 23 years old — and highlights the fact that even if it’s a nominally popular idea that women and girls should be able to play sports, they still hadn’t achieved equality. Sure, Nike may have its own motives — more girls playing sports means more Nike customers — but it’s making quite the social statement too. Whether the motives are cynical or not doesn’t really matter: equality being good for business is a good thing, and Nike clearly realized then that it was.

I saw that ad for the first time last week while perusing the web for a different project, and it made me think of how effective a Nike ad centered on LGBT equality could be. That’s clearly an interest for the company: it’s two years into its #BeTrue apparel line that promotes LGBT equality and this year donated $200,000 in proceeds from that line to the LGBT Sports Coalition. It has endorsed a constitutional amendment in Oregon that would legalize same-sex marriage there, and it recognizes the marketing potential of gay athletes: it already signed openly gay basketball players Brittney Griner and Jason Collins to endorsement deals and has expressed interest in endorsing more openly gay athletes whenever they should come out.

We’ve already seen the potential video messages have for the LGBT movement in sports. The You Can Play Project and other groups have used videos to promote the idea that LGBT athletes should be welcomed on the field and in the locker room, and each new video generates buzz for the cause. Imagine a similar proclamation, but one that came with Nike’s backing and aired on televisions across the world, and it’s easy to see how effective it could be in promoting the same idea in a way online videos simply cannot. Every new Nike ad generates attention online; one like this would end up on every sports blog in the country. And because the idea, like women’s equality, is generally accepted among sports fans, the overwhelming reaction would be positive even if the issue is one on which the sports world hasn’t made as much progress as it should have yet.

From a business standpoint, the upside of such an ad is easy to see, because companies including Nike have been upping their efforts to reach the LGBT community in recent years. But it would also advance a cause Nike clearly cares about, and one it is increasingly public about, in the sports world, delivering a powerful message especially in the world of youth and scholastic sports that LGBT people should be accepted as equals on the field and in the locker room. That sort of inclusive advocacy is in Nike’s advertising bloodstream, so knowing that, I’d guess we will eventually see something along these lines. And because of the power it would have, I hope it comes sooner rather than later.