Controlling Your Cartoon: Nike and the Art of the Meme

The key to political and commercial success in a widening gyre? Controlling your own cartoon.

By now you’ve seen this Nike/Kaepernick ad everywhere, along with the knock-offs and the jokes and the protests.

My personal fave meme adaptation of the Nike/Kaepernick ad is, of course, from Epsilon Theory‘s own Rusty Guinn (@wrguinn), with his brilliant FinTwit take on Bill Ackman.

But I’m also partial to the various Marvel takes here. (WARNING: Spoiler Alert)

There are hundreds of these repurposed Nike/Kaepernick ads out there today, some of them funny, most of them serious, many of them angry.

You’d think that the anger would be a bad thing for Nike. You would be wrong.

In the same way that there is no winning centrist politician and no stable centrist policy in a polarized society, so is there no winning centrist commercial identity and no stable centrist marketing policy in a polarized market.

I’ve written a lot recently (Things Fall Apart, part 1 and Things Fall Apart, part 2) about the political polarization of America. Or, to use the 10-dollar phrase, what happens in a two-party system with high-peaked bimodal voter preferences.

In a nutshell, we are in what Yeats called a widening gyre, where for any centrist candidate or policy, there exists a winning majority of voters on both the left AND the right who will favor a competing candidate or policy on both the left AND the right. This is what it looks like when the political center does not hold.

But it’s not just our political center that doesn’t hold, it’s any system based on expressing an identity. Like buying sneakers. What’s the difference between Nike and adidas shoes? You got me. I don’t think there is an appreciable difference. The only place where Nike can create a difference between themselves and their competitors is in the self-proclaimed identity of the Nike shoe-wearer. So that’s what every bit of Nike’s marketing is designed to do. Not sell you on the fundamental qualities of the Nike shoe, but to sell you on what it tells the world about you to wear a Nike shoe.

How do you sell an identity? You create a highly abstracted version of that identity. What is that? It’s the technical word for cartoon. How do you know if you’ve got an effective cartoon? It becomes a meme. People repurpose your cartoon for their own ends. People make fun of it. People get angry at you. This is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a necessary thing.

To succeed in a polarized political or economic system, you must create a polarizing cartoon of yourself. Why? Because if you do not create your own cartoon, your adversaries will impose a cartoon on you.

Look no farther than the 2016 presidential election, where the negative cartoon-ification of Hillary Clinton was both the most vicious and the most effective gambit in the last 100 years of American politics. To be sure, The Clintons™ brought soooo much of this on themselves. If there’s ever been a political candidate more ripe to be transformed into a negative cartoon than Hillary Clinton, I am unaware of who that might be. But where Donald Trump embraced and actively created his obvious cartoonishness, Hillary Clinton had her cartoon imposed on her unwillingly, to disastrous result.

Yes, this is why Trump won. And it’s why Nike is winning with this ad campaign.

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