Nike Takes Heat for T-Shirt Phrases

Discussion
Jun 24, 2011

George Bernard Shaw famously observed that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t require a distance over the Atlantic Ocean to create divisions. Go ask Nike.

The athletic apparel maker created a line of t-shirts intended for BMXers, skaters, snowboarders and other X game types to support the launch of its first-ever “Just Do It” campaign focusing on action-sports stars. The shirts have common phrases used by participants in these sports such as “Dope,” “F–k Gravity,” “Get High” and “Ride Pipe” instead of the “Just Do It” slogan above the Nike swoosh. That’s where things got ugly.

An anti-drug group, Oregon Partnership, took exception with phrases and sent letters to 1,500 people including government officials asking them to voice their displeasure with Nike.

“It’s gone past edgy,” Tom Parker, spokesman for the Oregon Partnership, told The Associated Press. “Sure it is the language of skateboarders and surfers, but it’s also the language of addicts.”

The new t-shirts hanging in the window of a Niketown store also got the attention of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino who asked that the display be removed.

“What we don’t need is a major corporation like Nike, which tries to appeal to the younger generation, out there giving credence to the drug issue,” Mr. Menino told the Boston Herald.

“In no way does Nike condone the use of banned or illegal substances,” Nike said in a statement. “This is about sport and being authentic to action sports. The shirts are part of an action sports campaign, featuring marquee athletes using commonly used and accepted expression for performance at the highest level of their sport, be it surfing, skate or BMX.”

Discussion Questions: Did Nike make a mistake with its new line of t-shirts? What do you think it should do now?

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20 Comments on "Nike Takes Heat for T-Shirt Phrases"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Nike has crossed the line from edgy to thoughtless in its new campaign. It’s also rare for Nike to admit a marketing mistake, and I don’t expect it to happen this time unless the backlash turns into a movement.

Anne Howe
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

The real problem here is that Nike pays its athletes a ton of money despite the fact that they use “drug lexicon” to indicate performance measures. This has become a cultural norm and everyone turns their heads on having an issue with it until it shows up on t-shirts.

Nike should pull the shirts and sit down with the athletes involved and help them understand the damage they do subliminally by re-purposing drug lexicon. Instead of defending it, why not put some effort into coming up with some new words. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but someone has to start to champion change for the good, and Nike certainly has the clout to do it.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
9 years 10 months ago

“This is about sport and being authentic to action sports.” If we’re going to go the ‘authentic’ route with t-shirt slogans and sports, we’re going to see a plethora of formerly unprintable slogans. The language used in everyday conversation, and especially internet ‘dialogue’ has devolved to the point that it should give one pause. Whether Nike will take a leadership position in helping stop this, if that is even possible, is doubtful.

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

It looks like Nike took a page from the Abercrombie playbook. Of course they knew that the slogans would generate controversy. And what will the result of that controversy be…more shirts sold.

Roger Saunders
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Lots of “under-served” segments out there. And teen extreme sports is likely one of them.

So, serve “exteme sports” with civil language, respect for diversity, and less double-entendre praise of drugs.

Nike has to ask itself if they could have won over this smaller segment with language that would appeal to the extreme sport enthusiast segment, while not allienating a larger segment of their base.

They have to choose the standards by which they want to be known. This choice seems to be a poor one.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 10 months ago

An “iconic” company frequently doesn’t know when it has become too insensitive or if it’s gone too far when it is riding high on a successful contemporary wave. But when “life guards” in Boston and Oregon sense the company is riding that wave too dangerously they should reconsider, re-evaluate and respond. In this matter, Nike should pull the t-shirts.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
9 years 10 months ago

A resounding “Yes”, Nike has indeed willingly and thoughtfully crossed the line with these t-shirts. This campaign wasn’t hatched without significant and lengthy product and marketing development timelines. This was premeditated and reveals, unfortunately, that in the quest for the almighty dollar (marketshare) that “ethics, taste and social mores be damned” is itself an accepted business practice.

It leaves me shaking my head.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

No mistake! These objections are ludicrous. How could a company be involved with a sport and not recognize the lexicon. These shirts are naturals and will be successful. To do anything else would make no sense. Somehow “Ignore Gravity” just doesn’t sing the same way. I think they are brilliant.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
9 years 10 months ago

For a company that is so typically astute in their marketing, this is a surprisingly bone-headed play. On a relative scale, skate-boarders are a miniscule market. It’s hard to imagine that they could have overlooked the controversy that these phrases would create. While that may have been the point (ala A&F), the negative reaction will surely outweigh the benefits.

Bad idea.

Alistair Linton
Guest
Alistair Linton
9 years 10 months ago

As soon as an anti-establishment type sport has to have its jargon validated by an international company such as Nike, the expression instantly becomes commercialized and less legitimate. I suspect that real boarders et al would hesitate to wear the Nike poser shirts. As a result, Nike has run the risk of offending just about everyone. For a company that has failed in the attempt to promote a social conscience, this is yet another failure. With a nation struggling with a youth drug problem, I would say shame on you Nike!

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
9 years 10 months ago

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. We are failing to teach through example what is and isn’t proper for general public viewing. Let’s show just a little bit more class.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

I’m old enough to remember when having a civil tongue and good manners, greasing the skids of interpersonal relations and helping people feel good about themselves, was respected. It saddens me to see how much the mainstream has adopted the glorification (or political correctness) of the snide, the foul and the thin veneer of the splashy personality. I remember Colin Powell, speaking at an industry function years ago, saying “As a society, we’ve lost our sense of shame.” All too true.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

It seems to me they took a calculated risk–and lost, at least in the short-term.

True, the phrases in question are associated with skater culture but it is impossible to believe that nobody at Nike saw the blatant and obvious link to drug and party cultures as well.

That would be like saying all FCUK (French Connection U.K.) really wanted to when it named its brand was to demonstrate the close cultural and stylistic ties between London and Paris.

Nobody ever went broke pandering to America’s more base elements or adolescent humor and symbology, but, every once and a while, marketers have to be prepared to get–to borrow another phrase bridging drug and non-drug cultures–“Busted.”

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
9 years 10 months ago

Personally I feel that if we invested half as much energy and attention to things like global water shortages, education reform, civil rights, violence against women and other real problems instead of what gets printed on a T-Shirt the world would be an infinitely better place.

I think it’s time to lighten up and devote ourselves to the stuff that really matters.

Ben Ball
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Hey Gang! Our age is showing!

Not that I’m any younger — but perhaps having Red Bull as a client keeps me a bit more in touch. These phrases have nothing to do with drugs in the context of X-sports — nor of the generation they are aimed at.

If we hope to as a society, government, teachers or even parents have any influence on this generation, we also have to build some “street cred.” Blowing up at Nike over this because we are attaching OUR generation’s implications to the words simply reinforces to the kids how out of touch we are with their lives.

And we call ourselves “marketers” and “students of the consumer”? I don’t think so, folks. I don’t think so.

Bill Hanifin
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

We as marketers tend to outsmart ourselves from time to time. This Nike campaign is a good example of a striving for creativity leading to a questionable result.

Poor judgement; admit the mistake, pull the shirts.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Oh, come on now.

In 1968 the Byrds took heat for a song called 8 Miles High. In 1965 The Rolling Stones had to alter song lyrics for the Ed Sullivan Show…Mick gave an exaggerated wink while singing “Let’s Spend SOME TIME Together.” A tee that says “Get High” just doesn’t upset me.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Will wonders ever cease? Wednesday we found ourselves traveling back in time 50 (or 150) years, and today I find myself defending Nike–at least up to a point. The critics, of course, are the type of humorless alarmists that H.L Mencken used to skew so effectively (and not very bright either, I might add, if they think “F**K Gravity” is somehow pro-drug). But these people are always with us, and the reality is large companies can’t get away with things smaller companies can (call it a “diseconomy of scale”); Nike should get back to doing what it does best: hyping vulgar, overpaid athletes and marketing expensive shoes to people who don’t need and can’t afford them.

Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

This falls into the “all P.R. is good P.R.” category. Abercrombie is a master at this. Nike should send the objectors thank you notes. Thanks for the free press! And of course, the young people they’re targeting will LOVE it. Love to be a fly on the wall of that decision tree.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

I wonder if this is Nike sticking their toe in the water, so to speak, to see what would happen. Now they know. At least they know the beginning of the backlash. I also wonder if this is the first of many to come from Nike in what might be a new marketing campaign catering to another group of potential buyers.

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