The Real Problem with Nike’s “Just Do It” Campaign

Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign implicitly ties self-meaning to the ability to do; and by doing, you have; and by having, you matter.

Nike is, and has been for three generations, encouraging their consumers to define goodness by what they do, what they have, and what they be; rather than insisting that our being – made in the image of God to love and worship Him first and to love our neighbor second – define what we should have and do.

 

As the smoke of World War II cleared, Europeans and Americans were left with a vividly gory portrait of the capabilities of mankind and the consequences of ideas. Philosophy, religion, and science had left tens of millions bloodied, burned, and buried. Positivism was dead – man may advance in knowledge and technique, but he would never improve his purpose. Hypotheses of social morality, under the control and of care of a political rheostat, were tested in the global laboratory – and the tests exploded.

And yet peace was still not an option.

Dread and anxiety became more palpable as the threat of nuclear annihilation engulfed the world in a very real sense.

“Is God Dead?” TIME Magazine asked its readers in 1966, and pointed to the “existential anguish” such a question might provoke. Simone de Beauvoir articulated amidst her own angst, “It was easier for me to think of a world without a creator than of a creator loaded with all the contradictions of the world.”[1]

Everything – especially existence – seemed to be absurd and meaningless to an increasingly secularized world.

What does this have to do with Nike? They are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign – controversially, by choosing Colin Kaepernick as the face of its campaign. But Kaepernick is not the problem with the campaign – I believe the controversy surrounding him is only a symptom. The problem is with the slogan itself – and its subsurface themes that elevate authenticity over truth, liberty over morality, existence over essence.

Nike’s slogan, coined in 1988, is a pithy expression of the crisis of theoretical and practical thought that faced late 20th-century western civilization. If life is absurd and meaningless, how shall we then live? Shall we then live?

Albert Camus asked his readers to contemplate seriously the theoretical and practical consequences of suicide. “There is but one serious philosophical problem,” he opens, “and that is suicide.” Suicide, Camus acknowledged, is a logical consequence of an awareness of the absurd. One accepts, by living, absurdity and meaninglessness “cannot be settled,” but suicide is “acceptance at its extreme.”

But Camus could not bring himself to promote existential extermination, despite his acute awareness of the perpetual despair one purchased with the currency of continued life. “Living is keeping the absurd alive.” Nevertheless, Camus insists, despite one’s absurd existence and dreadful future, “by the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death… The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. The point is to live.”

For Camus, “to live without appeal,” was to reject mystical “leaps” of faith, as well as to reject suicide, but rather to embrace living within the absurd “solely with what he knows, to accommodate himself to what is,” that is, to live freely with the certainty that nothing is certain, except perhaps his own desires.

Paul Tillich, a Lutheran existentialist, recognized in 1952 that this age was best described as an “age of anxiety”—anxiety being that state in which “a being is aware of its nonbeing.” Certainly an intense awareness in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. However, says Tillich, “the courage to take the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself is the boundary line up to which the courage to be can go… The Courage to Be is the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.

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