The dark side of Nike’s campaign featuring pregnant athletes

by | Mar 19, 2021

Some of Nike’s corporate PR campaigns have been among the best in the world. I’m not sure this is one of them…

Nike just dropped a new ad featuring pregnant and breastfeeding athletes.

Can you be an athlete? You, pregnant? You, a mother? That depends,” the ‘Toughest Athlete’ ad begins. The film shares clips of more than 20 mothers in various stages of pregnancy and postpartum life, including Serena Williams and USWNT soccer star Alex Morgan, plus track stars Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Perri Shakes-Drayton, Nia Ali, and Bianca Williams.

The ad asks:

“What is an athlete? Someone who moves? Sounds like you. Someone who gets it done, no matter what? You do that. Someone who listens to her body. Also you. Someone who defies gravity. You. Someone who deals with the pain, hits her limit, and pushes past it. Pushing, pushing, pushing. Someone who earns every single win. You, you, you. So can you be an athlete? If you aren’t, no one is.”

A poke beneath the surface

I was going to post about how the ad was positive, affirming and promoting-inclusion when I decided to poke around just a bit beneath the surface. I wondered if Nike were practicing what they preach on this topic.

On the face of it, how could there be anything wrong with an ad that seems to recognise, respect and empower women and mommas? But as one commentator has said: “One of the fascinating things about how some entities behave is their utter disregard for their previous actions, or their inability to realise a few clicks or a short search can call them up quickly.”

Less than two years ago, Nike faced severe backlash after multiple of its sponsored track and field athletes — first World Championships medalist Alysia Montaño and Olympian Kara Goucher, and then Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track athlete ever — revealed in the New York Times that the company penalised them financially for becoming pregnant, stopping payments while they were unable to compete.

Nike has since changed its policy, but its athletes are less than impressed. Nike sponsored athlete Alysia Montano but didn’t pay her whist pregnant and she switched allegiance to Asics as result.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

She wrote about the ad on her  Instagram

“We want Nike to sponsor athletes and support them through pregnancy, and thereafter, but we want them to acknowledge the fight and the struggle that it took to get them to make a change,” she wrote. “We DO NOT WANT them to use our women to make money and while doing so forcing their athletes that have been mistreated to post advertisements as a way of sweeping their struggles under the rug. Gaslight much?”

Criticism in the comments box

The comments box on Nike’s youtube feed are also full of criticism for the brand and its lack of recognition of the women in what the critics call ‘sweatshops’. Not good.

And when you’re just a few clicks away from the top searches criticising your brand’s stance on issues, I’m surprised that the PR/crisis management team didn’t pre-empt this potential pitfall of the advertising message.

It’s all too easy to just copy and paste a brand’s comms and stories – it’s what they want us to do. But we perhaps need to dig a little deeper before blithely promoting or supporting something without knowing the full story.

Nike’s corporate and consumer PR just aren’t joined up here – it might be creative, interesting or edgy to feature pregnant women in a sports campaign, but you have to practice what you preach or your customers will find out.

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