“You Can’t Stop Us”: Nike’s Inclusive Ad Debunked

October 12, 2020



A sports superstar with stats full of failure rather than successes.

A typical teenager trying to complete a long-distance run.

A community connected by a long-awaited basketball championship.

These are just some examples of the subjects portrayed in Nike’s wide range of advertisements. While most companies see advertising as product-centered, the popular athletic brand seeks to go beyond promoting its sports shoes and activewear by enkindling emotion among its target market. Its trademark is telling stories of inspiration from different points of view. From Olympic players and NBA superstars to brave little girls and proud people of color, Nike always seeks to provide a narrative that humanizes our perceptions of greatness not just in sports, but also in life. In every advertisement, despite the varied stories and perspectives, Nike subtly reminds us of its long-standing key message: Just Do It.

While it is generally met with positive feedback, not every Nike advertisement is flawless. In fact, some ads have been criticized for their true intentions—are the messages that were sent across really genuine? Or is Nike just capitalizing on emotional advertising for financial gain? In one of its most recent ads, Nike aimed to forward the message of inclusivity despite the coronavirus pandemic. Entitled You Can’t Stop Us, the advertisement gained generally positive reviews from viewers. However, it has also been negatively criticized on social media. This then leads us to ask the question: what’s wrong with You Can’t Stop Us? Read on to find out. 

You Can’t Stop Us—A Nike Campaign 

Nike’s “You Can’t Stop Us” is a video that featured a dynamic split-screen with 36 pairs of athletes. It shows the transition of one dynamic sport to another, illustrating a diverse cast in terms of gender, race, and culture. Throughout the 90-second film, the actions of the athlete on the right side of the screen mirrored that on the left—making it seem that they experienced the same circumstance despite the distance. Aside from this, “You Can’t Stop Us” also showed how the health crisis affected the sports community as it depicted closed gyms and empty stadiums, as well as workers in hazmat suits performing health and safety protocols in those areas. 

The message of the advertisement is simple: You can’t stop sport. Because you can’t stop us. No matter how different we are from each other, even if things do not always go our way, the mere idea of coming together amidst great challenges—of sharing a level playing field—sparks hope for the future.

0:28—The controversial timestamp 

“Because when we’re doubted, we’ll play as one. When we’re held back, we’ll go farther, and harder. If we’re not taken seriously, we’ll prove that wrong.”

For over 30 years, Nike has been incorporating social statements in their advertisements. From the first launch of their trademark Just Do It in 1988 to their most recent Every Voice Matters that addresses the United States presidential election, it is not a stretch to consider that the sportswear company has made some of the most iconic commercials of all time. They have been advocating for change since day one, yet some of the brand’s promotions still became the center of controversy; You Can’t Stop Us is just one of them.

The controversial four-second split-screen segment of the advertisement starts at 0:28 when a Muslim woman was skateboarding while wearing a niqab, transitioning to the next scene as an LGBTQ member held a pole with six spouts, leaving a trail of smoke with the colors of their community’s flag. American soccer player Megan Rapinoe narrates, And if we don’t fit the sport, we’ll change the sport.”

The criticized four-second segment. Source: Nike (Youtube); You Can’t Stop Us

Nike instantly received online backlash from the Muslim community; the comment section of the video overflowed with negative criticism—along with 0:28 as one of the most mentioned words—and expressing their attempts to boycott and switch to another sportswear brand. “A Muslim here, never buying from you again,” a person stated. “0:28 this is so disrespectful.”

“Showing the Muslim girl while saying ‘not fitting the game’ then showing the LGBT supporter and going on to say ‘change the game’ was not the best choice of words,” another commented. “As it goes against the very message the ad is supposedly calling for.”

Other comments revolved around how Nike made light of the traditions of the Islamic culture: “A woman in (a) niqab doesn’t fit the sport? You don’t fit the sport Nike.” This was further agreed on by other Muslim women, implying that wearing their hijab is not a hindrance in doing the sports that they love and that there are other women who became successful without their clothing getting in the way.

Amid all of the adverse reactions, someone argued, “0:28 wasn’t showing the woman changing to something she isn’t. There are people of different races side by side. This obviously isn’t showing someone changing from the left side of the screen to the right side, so there’s no reason that that’s the message 0:28 is trying to give. If anything it’s showing how both of those people are equal and valid.” 

Cultural SensitivityMust-have for responsible advertising

Considering that Nike is also an influential brand, they should have put themselves in the shoes of their target market; just like how they did two months prior to “You Can’t Stop Us”. They released “For once, Don’t Do It”—an empowering text-only video that started with a play on words from their trademark. It was their timely response to the Black Lives Matter movement, encouraging everyone not to turn a blind eye to racism and police brutality that still occurs even up to this day.

Nike’s stand on Black Lives Matter. Source: Nike (Youtube); For once, Don’t Do It

Although it still received negative feedback for taking advantage of a social issue for promoting their brand, it was observed that there was an increase in purchase intent over the possibility of the market boycotting because Nike was clear on what they stand for. They effectively integrated their brand to their advocacy—to support racial equality and for people to become part of the change—without compromising their relations with the Black community.

While it is true that advertisements are subject to interpretation, it is a must for businesses to make an effort in understanding their customers—especially in considering how they might feel regarding such efforts. As seen in the public’s backlash against “You Can’t Stop Us,” Nike’s customer loyalty from the Muslims, and the potential to gain more customers from their market was threatened in a flash. They should have recognized that advertising, especially in the digital age where every individual could easily scrutinize their works through online means, goes hand in hand with cultural sensitivity and being socially responsible in what they market.

One thing is for sure: advertisements can be subjected to the audience’s own interpretations, and Nike’s attempt at representing their brand’s inclusivity through “You Can’t Stop Us” backfired.

But whether this precautionary tale in advertising was an honest mistake on Nike’s part or a calculated move still remains a mystery up until today. 


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