Nike, Semiotics, and Revolution
By Matthew Lindia
Nine words and an image are all it takes to send America into a frenzy these days. Probably less, depending on the choice of text selected. But late last year, Nike tried its hand at stirring the digital pot on their release of the following ad, accompanied by a new commercial spot.
A simple photo and an uplifting message. Except for the layered symbolism which gives more subtext than a volume of the complete works of Shakespeare. Don’t blink, or you might lose your footing on this semiotic jungle gym and find yourself tangled by more representamen than would make Umberto Eco blush.
I supposed one could understand this symbolic warfare through a number of different philosophical lenses. However, because of the wide intended range of C.S. Peirce’s semiotics for all symbolic action, and its design for the use of all symbols, I will use Peirce’s heuristic here (Chandler, 2017). This example proves especially helpful in understanding how symbolic processes allow us to “both produce and understand (interpret) all the forms of expression and technical mediation that we live in and with every day” (Irvine, Draft).
The symbolic story starts several centuries ago. In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote what would become America’s national anthem to commemorate the resilience of Fort McHenry after being bombed by the British in the War of 1812. Representamen: song. Object: the bombing of Ft. McHenry. Interpretant: Living memory.
It was over a century later, however, in 1916, that the Star Spangled Banner began to be used as the National Anthem. Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order that assigned new meaning to the song as the national anthem for the American military (Klein, 2014). While it took 15 years for this order to actually be signed into law, it indicated an important semiotic shift: while the representamen (perceptual object) of song remained the same, the object shifted toward the ideal of national identity through the interpretant of governmental propaganda.
While there were some minor symbolic waves from the conception of the national anthem to 2016, the boat was rocked to, perhaps, an unprecedented degree in the fall of that year. In an attempt to protest nationwide prevalence of deaths of black men at the hands of police officers, B-list NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick elected to sit during the playing of the national anthem during a preseason game. Here’s where our semiotic story gets tricky, because we begin to deal with more than one symbolic thread. By juxtaposing the perceptual object of sitting (and later kneeling) with the perceptual object of the national anthem (in song), Kaepernick succeeded in gaining controversy and attention, without succeeding in redefining the symbolic terms for large portions of the public.
In other words, the following semiotic battle raged: for Kaepernick and his supporters, the representamen of kneeling during the national anthem signified the object of protest of police brutality through the interpretant of the media and their own explanations. However, for a large portion of the public, the same representamen signified the object of national disrespect, particularly for the military, through the interpretant of the history and tradition of the national anthem as a symbol.
If that weren’t complicated enough, the thread only continues to unravel. On the one hand, you could follow the trend of removing the perceptual symbol from the perceptual actor, and how Kaepernick’s actions became part of the repertoire of civil disobedience for athletes. This, while important to recognize for semiotics, is fairly obvious as a phenomenon. More interesting, however, is following the thread in examining how Kaepernick himself became a symbol of the protests he initiated. In other words, over the course of the controversy, Kaepernick himself became the representamen, signifying simultaneously objection to police brutality and national disrespect depending on the interpretant. Support or dissent from either of these ideographs could be signified through purchase or burning of Kaepernick’s jersey. In this way, Kaepernick’s jersey replaced him as the representamen in this symbolic system and the perceptual actions of burning and purchasing signified the object of support or dissent through the interpretant of public performance.
For two years, this public discourse appeared to meet a semblance of symbolic symbiosis. Until Nike decided to explode this symbolism with one simple marketing move. By juxtaposing Kaepernick as representamen with their own brand, Nike superseded Kaepernick as the latest symbol to represent the double sided coin of objection to police brutality and national disrespect in public discourse. Although Nike never engaged in discourse with the words of Francis Scott Key, they inherited the implications of all the previous perceptual objects through their symbolic affirmation of Kaepernick. As a result, a new slew of perceptual actions, pertaining to the Nike logo, signified the objects of dissent or support. Most notably, the cutting out of the Nike logo from Nike apparel serves as a new representamen of patriotism and dissent from the ideals of Nike and Kaepernick.
While Nike’s stock allegedly dropped as a result of this ad, it symbolically aligns Nike on the right side of the media’s hot or not function, and will prove, at worst a temporary set back for the mega-brand. Either way, however, it showcases an interesting semiotic circus which demonstrate the usefulness of CS Peirce’s model.
Davis, Chandler. 2017. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.
Irvine, Martin. Draft. Introduction to Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, Semiotics, and Technology.
Klein, Christopher. 2014. 9 Things You May Not Know About “The Star-Spangled Banner” –
HISTORY. History.Com. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-star-spangled-banner, accessed September 10, 2018.