Nike’s World Cup Spot Celebrated Women but Sidestepped Addressing Pay Inequality

For a brand whose mission centers on equality, this felt like a missed opportunity to speak up

A young female soccer player and a professional female soccer player posing with fist up and biting their jerseys.
While Nike's spot is a massive spirit booster, there's also the feeling that something is missing. - Credit by Nike
Headshot of Justin Tobin

The stage was set for all of us to take part in something powerful and influential. The United States women’s national soccer team dominated the FIFA Women’s World Cup amidst political and social turbulence and brought home their unprecedented fourth World Cup trophy. Following the win, televisions and social media platforms were inundated with “USA” chants and posts in support of the team and its foremost celebrity players. Amid the flurry of celebration, a Nike spot, with the classic black and white theme, quickly became the focus of the excitement.

Nike, the brand known for its controversial but steadfast stances, aired a sentimental spot honoring the United States women’s team, emphasizing female empowerment for future generations. The “Never Stop Winning” spot was slotted immediately after the USWNT won the World Cup. It was a signature Nike campaign, designed to inspire and tug on the heartstrings of viewers across the country.

Although the ad captivated many viewers, the spot and Nike itself remained quiet on perhaps the most vital issue and prominent conversation topic that surrounded the World Cup off the field. Throughout the entire tournament, the debate around equal pay again took place on social media, television and at the games. Players, spectators and advocates alike used their voices to bring light to the rampant issue of pay inequality, not only in sports but throughout the country.

The question is: Where was Nike?

Nike was both immediately present and deafeningly absent following the World Cup final.

It’s particularly curious when you consider that in today’s climate of hotly debated social issues, equal pay is arguably a less divisive issue than, say, police conduct and brutality. Standing up for equal pay would not have been met with the same controversy as Nike’s groundbreaking campaign in which they backed Colin Kaepernick in the midst of his “Take a Knee” movement.

However, instead of addressing the issue of income inequality, especially among women athletes, Nike decided to stick to its routine of creating “follow your dreams” advertisements. The spot had a very important message regarding empowerment, and it resonated well among consumers. However, Nike had a golden and fleeting opportunity, missing the chance to enter the real conversation. Nobody on social media was arguing about the extent to which we should be empowered humans who follow dreams and never stop winning. They were grappling with systematic, complicated issues around fair pay, and that’s a conversation Nike curiously avoided.

Would it have been that difficult for Nike to broadcast something along the lines of, “When they win, we all win. Now it’s time to give them what they deserve: #EqualPay”? The paradox is that Nike was both immediately present and deafeningly absent following the World Cup final.

A quick glance at Nike’s website shows the brand’s mission, purpose and values. Nike’s commitment to what it believes has brought them tremendous success throughout the decades. Among the statements is a commitment to equality, which says, “Equality isn’t a game. But achieving it will be our greatest victory. Until we all win.”

The “Never Stop Winning” campaign didn’t fall short in terms of celebrating the powerful women that represent the United States on the biggest soccer stage. It also didn’t fall short in creating an emotional connection with fans and viewers across the country. However, it did fall short in doing real work in a conversation where Nike’s values demand they be at the center of. Advocacy takes real work beyond the mission statement.

Nike has created an image for themselves as pioneers for brands taking stances, regardless of the potential controversy. However, in this unique moment, with all eyes upon them, Nike refrained from taking the shot.

Justin Tobin is founder and president of DDG, a New York-based innovation consultancy.
Publish date: July 16, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT