“Nike Finally Gave Women’s Soccer the Breathtaking Ad it Deserves” Tim Nudd, editor and chief of the Clio Awards, boldly announces in his headline for an article that celebrates Nike’s new “Dream Further” ad (3 June 2019). Nudd explains that this is the first three-minute soccer ad from Nike to feature women soccer players – as, not surprisingly, all previous three-minute soccer ads featured male soccer players. On its surface, Nike’s recent advertisement appears a giant leap forward in making progress towards gender equality.
The ad stars ten-year-old soccer player, Makena Cook, as she’s whisked away in a daydream where she experiences the life of a soccer superstar. She plays alongside famous female players, poses for photoshoots, stars in a video game, travels the world, and even coaches Barcelona’s men’s club team with former (female) player, Alex Scott. As Makena moves amongst powerful women from all over the globe, Joan Jet’s feminist anthem, “Bad Reputation”, blares in the background.
Muse by Clio describes itself as a publication that celebrates “inspiring stories of creativity”, particularly in advertising. But what, exactly, does Nike’s “Dream Further” ad inspire? Are we really foolish enough to buy into the idea that situating women as consumers and depicting multiculturalism and feminism for profit is progress?
In their introduction to The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Late Capital (Duke University Press, 1997), editors Lisa Lowe and David LLoyd advance a new critical approach in the context of contemporary, neocolonial capitalism. Their critical approach, as it relates to gender equality, aims to harness the potential political power that lies in the vast and diverse knowledge network latent in the experiences of women around the globe. To do this, Lowe and Lloyd argue, we must always consider gender equality in relationship with culture, politics, and economics.
Because it focuses on gender identity alone – separate from culture, politics, and economics – Lowe and Lloyd might argue that ads like Nike’s “Dream Further” ad only serves to exacerbate gender inequality.
Let’s begin with the colonial ideology of nation-states. By nature of a soccer ad for the Women’s World Cup, the women in the ad are divided into teams representing their respective nations. Immediately then, the Western, colonized concept of nation-state is naturalized as the only way to organize politically.
Not only are women soccer players, then, still subordinate to patriarchal political organizing structures, this privileging of the nation-state obscures the way global neo-capitalism actually works in today’s economy. Although there may be national borders on a map or on the soccer field, there are no borders when it comes to global capitalism – especially the global networks that Nike exploits to maximize profit.
Despite the naturalized ideology of the nation-state, in the ad women from around the globe unite around a universal vision of feminism. She can do it, if you will. However, it is a Eurocentric, privileged version of feminism that remains subservient to global capitalism and, consequently, patriarchy. This vision of gender equality – to realize your dreams, to prove that you can be as strong and fierce as men, to become famous enough for a multinational corporation to use your body for branding – diverts the viewer’s attention away from any actual material changes that Nike, FIFA, or the USSF could make to advance gender equality.
Most notably, the ad diverts the viewer’s attention away from issues of gender pay equity in the game “U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination“, Andrew Das, The New York Times, 8 March 2019). Sure, women can become soccer players and Nike can develop a three-minute ad featuring women soccer players, but what woman dreams of earning only 38 percent of what men earn while playing the same game and risking the same injuries? (“US Women’s National Team Defending Title, Controversy Going into World Cup“, John Reger, Online Gambling, 9 June 2019) What female athlete dreams of risking pay cuts from sponsors like Nike if they become pregnant? (“Allyson Felix: My Own Nike Pregnancy Story“, The New York Times, 22 May 2019) Even if these concerns were somehow addressed in the ad, they are still largely the concerns of a privileged, Eurocentric form of feminism.
Presenting a privileged, Eurocentric form of feminism as universal also obscures the hyper-exploitation of women in developing countries who labor to produce Nike’s products. Multinational companies like Nike operate in a system of global capitalism and continuously search for the cheapest labor so that they can maximize profit. In so doing, they often rely on the patriarchal control of governments to exploit and regulate women’s bodies, especially in the workplace. So while women with more economic privilege celebrate Nike’s designing sportswear for women (“Nike Declares 2019 Its Year for Women“, Pamela N. Danziger, Forbes, 1 March 2019), or including women soccer players in a three-minute ad, women in Vietnam and other countries who produce Nike’s merchandise are still dreaming for a living wage, for a workplace free from abuse and intimidation, for safe, affordable child care, and for many more basic needs to be met (“Nike Boasts of Empowering Women Around the World“, Maria Hengeveld, Slate, 26 August 2016).
Meanwhile, women with economic privilege are positioned to celebrate Nike’s ad as progress and consume Nike’s products. At the same time, they are positioned to ignore, or lack the ability to even imagine, their own complicity in the exploitation of women internationally.
From this perspective, worth noting is Nike’s lack of attention in the ad to the US women’s soccer team. The US women’s soccer team is featured in one brief, roughly ten-second segment of the ad. In the segment, the referee calls a foul on the US team and the ten-year-old star assists a goal for the Australian team against the US. The US presence, then, takes a backseat in the ad, allowing the multiculturalism of the World Cup to take center stage.
This is the World Cup, after all, and the US should not necessarily take center stage. However, in what ways does this aesthetic choice occlude the material reality that the profits generated from this ad will ultimately benefit an American company? Taking the spotlight off of the US Women’s Soccer Team in the ad not only obscures the serious work that the team is doing for equal pay, but also works to further obscure the fact that Nike is a transnational corporation with profit – not progress – as its primary concern.
Let’s not forget the obvious: Nike, like all corporations, is profit-motivated. In selling its women’s line of products, and the limited edition girls’ youth jersey that Makena Cook wears throughout the ad, Nike is selling a commodified form of multiculturalism in hopes to expand its consumer base. This is not progress for a multicultural feminism. This is what Henry Yu (2000) calls the “commodification of ethnicity” (“How Tiger Woods Lost His Stripes“, Los Angeles Times, 2 Dec 1996) and what Inderpal Grewal (1999) calls, “patriarchal quasi-feminism that keeps the dominant patriarchy in place” (“Traveling Barbie: Indian Transnationality and New Consumer Subjects”, Positions, Vol. 7 Iss. 3, Winter, 1999). In occluding the network that is global capitalism, presenting a universal version of feminism, and fetishizing multiculturalism, Lowe and Lloyd might argue that Nike’s “Dream Further” ad obscures any potential for imagining alternatives for resistance that might bring about actual material progress for gender equality.
Lowe and Lloyd do not necessarily advocate for the “‘denationalization’ of corporate power or the nation-state”, but do ask us to think more intersectionally, identify the contradictions inherent in global capitalism, and perhaps reorganize transnational structures in ways that can lead to just and equitable material practices.
For example, could Nike have highlighted and given voice to the activism of different women’s soccer teams from around the globe? Could Nike, like Adidas, provide equal pay bonuses to its sponsored soccer players? (“Women’s Advocacy Group Calls on Nike to Give Equal Pay Bonuses for World Cup Athletes“, Samantha McDonald, Footwear News, 13 March 2019) Could Nike, like the nutrition bar company, Luna, earmark profits to close the pay gap for women soccer players? (“US Women’s Soccer Revenue is Higher, So Why the Pay Gap?“, Amy Calistri, Online Gambling, 21 June 2019) How can women, athletes or not, hold multinational companies accountable to fair labor practices instead of celebrating an illusion of progress that we see in a three-minute ad?
Let’s start holding multinational corporations accountable to actual, material change.
Let’s quit dreaming and get real.