Listen to this as you read . . . "Air Force Ones" by rappers Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, and Kyjuan, 2002
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Nike is tapping into the sway of cultural “influencers” to attract new types of consumers. Traditionally, celebrity athletes have worn Nike shoes in return for lucrative endorsement deals. However, recent charges brought against famous Nike-sporting athletes like NFL star and criminal dog-fighter, Michael Vick, and more recently, track heroine and self-admitted steroid user, Marion Jones, have dirtied this image of the hard-working athlete and further urged Nike to look beyond the sweat-drenched athlete for culturally influential people to wear their shoes. While still focusing on the athlete as the main consumer, Nike is turning to “under the radar” influencers for inspiration. In many cases, this leads to Nike’s white sneaker being painted, embroidered or dyed the colors of a Latin American flag or taking on “cultural signifiers,” often stereotyped symbols meant to represent a certain heritage or ethnicity.
Nike’s most stylistic shoe, the Air Force 1, provides an excellent case in point. A new series of the shoe, called the “Cultura” collection consists of shoes like The Los Angeles Cortez, inspired by “the traditional images of LA street life,” the Handball Aztec Cortez designed to capture “our Aztec heritage,” and the green, white and red Mexican Airforce, which “pays homage to the Motherland.” Nike designers hired well-known graffiti and tattoo artists to create each shoe’s aesthetic appeal. Each year, Nike releases a new Chinese New Year AF1 (check out the Year of the Dog here). And, in previous years, Nike has introduced a series of West Indies Air Force 1s in time for West Indies Pride Days in New York City. Each shoe has the flag of a different West Indies country on its insole. There are also Jamaica, Philippines, and Puerto Rico Air Force 1s. Deemed “ethnic pride sneakers” by bloggers, these shoes bring up interesting issues about identity and consumerism. Through these shoes Nike present a pre-packaged narrative of identity. They tell consumers that it is possible to express ethnic pride by wearing Nike tennis shoes. Effectively, commodifying ethnicity has become a sales strategy for Nike.
However, according to Nike, developing shoes for certain ethnicities is not only about ethnic pride, but also about promoting health. Earlier this year, Nike introduced the Air Native N7, a shoe designed specifically for Native Americans. In addition to its signature swoosh, the shoe features “heritage callouts,” including sunrise and sunset patterns on the tongue and heel, arrowheads and feathers. Nike claims the new shoe is “an effort aiming at promoting physical fitness in a population with high obesity rates.” As one self-described Native American blogger, David Yeagley, summarizes, “American Indians are fat and have funny-shaped feet.” He continues: “Our own Nikes! What an achievement!” and asks, “A shoe designed especially for Indians is going to make us walk more? A national company name lent to Indians is going to inspire us to better health?” Another critic, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian had the following to say, “The day it was announced, I thought: ‘Are they going to have dream catchers on them? Are they going to be beaded? Will they have native bumper stickers on them that say, ‘Custer had it coming’?”
Apparently the idea behind these specialized shoes is that they will create a buzz that will spread to consumers closer to the mainstream. That's right, Nike is attempting to attract attention from "under the radar" consumers in order to appeal to the mainstream. Buying "ethnic pride" sneakers from Nike might allow someone to feel like they're expressing their ties to a certain culture or identity, but in the end, they're still just products designed to make profits for the biggest footwear company in the world.
One has to wonder if Nike's switch from risky celebrity endorsements to ethnic pride, is really just about creating a positive spin on its image, which has historically also been sullied by accusations of worker abuse in poor country sweatshops.