From The “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring” Files, Cultural Illiteracy Section: Nike’s Gaffe

Pop quiz,  Ethics Alarmers: if you worked for Nike, and learned that it was about to launch a new campaign promoting the brand’s  Trail Running collection with this—“The Lost Cause…Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting”—what would you do?  I assume that most of you would immediately recognize that the Lost Cause, in American historical context,  refers to the sentimental, romantic and  troubling interpretation of the Confederacy’s defeat, in which slavery is recalled as a benevolent institution and the Civil War as a noble effort by the South to protect a civilization now “gone with the wind”—the title of the film which, coincidentally, I am watching as I type this.

But as The Washington Post reported, it took historians blowing whistles at Nike to alert the company that the campaign was an epic gaffe, causing Nike to pull it within hours.

“Shoes for the Confederacy?” tweeted historian Jacqueline Antonovich. “@NikeTrail, hire more people with a humanities background to avoid this embarrassment.”

Oh, no you don’t. This is a mass U.S. education system failure, not just a matter of Nike not hiring enough  scholars and history majors. All citizens in this country should know about the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the cultural forces that both created them and emanate from them to this day. To be fair, the now-dinged call out to die-hard rebels wasn’t too much more facile and lazy that the  “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign that cynically turned that kneeling boob Colin Kaepernick into some kind of martyr.  It was, however, spectacularly depressing, for it once again showed how dangerously clueless and unread even educated Americans are regarding their nation’s history.

I wonder how many of the Confederate statue topplers could have flagged what was wrong with Nike’s “Lost Cause” evocation. My guess? Almost none of them. Just one more reason I refuse to be lectured about how to represent our history by people whose knowledge and understanding  of American history is about where mine was by the third grade.

Ok, be honest now…

30 thoughts on “From The “When Ethics Alarms Don’t Ring” Files, Cultural Illiteracy Section: Nike’s Gaffe

  1. I would need to see the ad. Assuming I made the connection, I would have wondered what they were thinking. It is done and history deaf, but is what you get when you wipe out history.

    On a side note, I wouldn’t have understood the ad anyway. I never get the defeatist idea that you do something challenging because you “just do it”. If I had seen an ad for the lost cause, I would have have thought, “well, that is a dumb slogan. Why would should I engage in a futile, pointless gesture akin to fighting windmills?” Then, again, I don’t buy Nike shoes because they don’t fit my feet, are too expensive, and have stupid ads.


    • Ditto. I didn’t think of the Civil War right off the bat, my first thought went to the “Believe in something” campaign. If you took out the cultural implications from each campaign, the slogans are both so generic they’re meaningless. Even if Nike didn’t make any attempt to assign context to them, smart-alecks online certainly would have.

    • Here is the text of the ad. The photo used is a man in the distance, standing on a cliff looking out at water.

      “Today, getting lost is a lost art.
      We know where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and when we’ll arrive before we leave.
      We know if a dish is good before we order it.
      If a show is decent before we watch it.
      If our date is a match before we even meet them.
      Dog walkers walk our dogs.
      Robots vacuum our floors.
      Lights turn on by themselves.
      And self-driving cars are a thing.
      Sure, we’ve gained a lot.
      But we’ve also lost…well, we’ve lost the feeling of being lost.
      We’ve lost the sensation of taking a ‘shortcut’ that ends up being some sort of scenic route.
      Lost in the moment you stop, look around and wonder;
      Where the f—am I?
      How do I get home?
      And more importantly, how do I find this place again?
      Like it or not, there are only a few places in the world today to lose.
      Only a few spots where you can lose yourself and lose your way as you lose track of time.
      One of those places is the trail.
      And that’s why we keep running back to it.
      Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting.”

      I might not have tied it into the Civil War given the running shoe association. Perhaps if it were capitalized…

      (if this is too long, feel free to delete it, Jack. I typed it out as it appears in the ad)

        • You’re welcome! Someone sent it to Ann Althouse. I didn’t think I could embed a jpeg image, so I typed the text of it.

      • “We know where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and when we’ll arrive before we leave.
        We know if a dish is good before we order it.
        If a show is decent before we watch it.”

        That frustration with predictability must be why they decided to make basketball shoes that occasionally explode on you mid-stride. Keeps life exciting.

      • Given the context of the ad, beyond the use of a masked profanity (f), I don’t know that I would equate this with an attempt to glorify what is certainly a White Nationalist opinion.

        But I’m rather surprised no one at the Woke Nike Corporation thought of those spooky swarms of White Nationalists and thought, “This is White Nationalist Code like the okay sign! No one is allowed to speak of Lost Causes in this country because it always and only means they are referring to bitter losers of the Civil War!”

  2. I understand why it was considered to be a gaffe, but voted that I still don’t understand why (other than that the slanted will slant).
    But I also read The Fate of Marvin and found it worthy of consideration, and am a fan of Ima Hogg. So I am guilty of having an open mind about Confederates.
    And, speaking of causes, where did I hear that correlation does not imply causation? Then there’s that.

  3. I am aware of the lost cause representation but like Johnburger I might not have made the association. Not all associations come immediately to mind. Perhaps as we watch Scarlet and Melanie rifle through the belongings of the Yankee she just shot the association becomes more apparent.

    Can’t we say that our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet Nam and Korea were lost causes?

  4. I asked one of my black friends why he hated Robert E. Lee so much and not Jefferson Davis. His response: who is Jefferson Davis… I’m not sure what to do with something like that.

  5. Two points:
    I would have caught Lost Cause, but only relatively recently. By the same token, I had not heard about the War of Northern Aggression until I went to grad school in South Carolina, the hotbed of the revolution. But, I did pick it up along the way.

    Playing Devil’s Advocate, if I were to put the best face on this, this is a “root for the underdog” message. (That would have been an easier message to justify, too.). However, even if that was the message, they should have had enough sense and background knowledge to understand this other meaning.


  6. It’s been a while since I heard the phrase like that, so it took a long moment to ID the context. I do know at minimum I would have been uneasy as I was wondering what the ad people thought was the noble lost cause they were alluding to? SJW stuff? Free speech? A football game? Getting out of debt? Brexit? The Confederacy may be the correct answer, but we are inundated by lost causes today. I spend far more time worrying about free speech in a progressive landscape than the more than century past issue of legal slavery.

  7. As a history teacher, yes, I would. However, you are right on target about our failed education industry. Unfortunately, education it is now an industry whose values are highly suspect.

  8. Jack,
    All I hear is Mr. Smith recounting how lost causes are “the only ones worth fighting for.” I suppose he sympathized with the Confederates, too.

    • It’s a great point—of course, nobody found the Lost Cause old South nostalgia sinister in 1939, except blacks presumably. Today a remarkable number of SJWs think “Gone With The Wind” is racist and should be banned.

  9. My father, raised in the Catholic Church, chose Jude as his confirmation name — because, as he put it, Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. (Was Jude the patron saint of the Confederacy? Hmm.)

    Like other commenters, I’m not sure I’d have made the connection upon seeing the ad. It does seem like a gaffe once the connection is made, but I’m not sure it really is. I think most regular people, especially non-Southerners, don’t connect “lost cause” to the “Lost Cause,” not so much from ignorance as from having been learned about the Civil War without being presented an apologia for the South’s rebellion. Southerners might make the connection because they were taught about the “Lost Cause” as children, but it seems unlikely they’d believe that Nike were actually embracing the Lost Cause narrative. Academics with specialities touching on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow would make the connection, but they spend a lot of time thinking about just that kind of thing, which is itself a sort of bias. At this point starts to feel more like a “gotcha” than a gaffe, really, like saying, “Don’t be afraid to be a rebel,” and having that called out as an embarrassing gaffe because everyone knows that the Confederates were “rebels.”

  10. Speaking of cultural illiteracy, I posted this a few days ago but I don’t see it now and it seems to have been lost in the ether:

    Charles Van Doren has died.

    He lived much longer after his famous cheating scandal than he did before it. Imagine living to 93 years old and, upon your death, being remembered as the man who cheated on a game show 60 plus years ago and brought down the industry. If ever there was a symbolic lesson in how important it is to live a life of integrity, it was this one.

    In the early ’80s, my two grandmothers were talking one day and one grandmother said to the other, “I love ‘Family Feud’. The other one said, “They’re all rigged, Margie.” “Oh, I know….”, said the first. At the time, I just thought they were being cynical. A few years later, I understood they had a right to be.

    • Oh, I’ll mention this in the Warm-Up. “Quiz Show” did a great job telling the story while raising the right ethics issues. The equivalent to the quiz show fakery is scripted reality shows—the difference is that the fakery is openly acknowledged, and the viewers don’t care. The rationalization is the same, though: It’s just a show!

      • I loved “Quiz Show”. I think I still have it on VHS somewhere. And yes, faked scripted reality shows are the same. Yet, even though almost everyone knows they are fake, the real people participating in them actually get hate mail for how their actions are edited for the cameras. It’s one of the reasons I stopped watching “The Biggest Loser” year ago.

  11. I wouldn’t have made the connection except for satirically. I only recall the Lost Cause/Civil War framing in terms of Gone With the Wind (and I like both the book and movie) but I’ve heard it generically plenty of other places. Had I heard about this controversy anyplace else, I would have assume it was the Internet Outrage Machine finding blackface shoes again.

    On my own I might have made the connection mockingly, like those parodies of the Kapernick ad that suggested various historical tyrants “believing in something.”

  12. I voted “of course” but, in hindsight, I don’t know that I would have made that connection had I not noticed the clip from Gone With the Wind first. Not being American (I’m Canadian), it’s less likely that I would have seen it through the context of American history. I wonder at what point cultural illiteracy becomes excusable when our cultures aren’t the same but share as many similarities as ours do.

  13. While both sides of any war seek to justify their actions, the victor determines the narrative as one of the spoils of war, while the narrative of the vanquished is derided and shouted down until it is quelled and buried. It is thus in the narrative of the so-called Civil War, where even the name given it by the victor has prevailed, to cover the nature of its war of invasion, conquest, and coerced political allegiance. The South’s “Lost Cause” narrative of States’ Rights is thus buried under the North’s “Myth of American History” narrative of slavery as being the cause of the war. But both narratives are in error, for they confound two of the many causes for secession with the single cause of the war, which was secession itself.

    (The Cult of the Lost Cause from the Abbeville Institute, for the ‘constitutionally unreconstructed’!)

    …invasion, conquest, and coerced political allegiance.

    Many on this Blog have been or soon will get some hard lessons in ‘coerced political allegiance’. That is what is going on now in America: a further octave of the same causes set in motion years back.

  14. Speaking of tone deafness, during Saturday’s Masters broadcast, they showed a promo (I guess that’s what you’d call it) that began with a shot of driving down Magnolia Lane to the plantation house, er, Augusta National clubhouse, and then showed images of many, if not all, of the winners over the years. Preposterously, the only soundtrack dubbed over the images of all those white guy winners (except Tiger, who, as I remember, doesn’t consider himself African American due to his mother’s being Thai) was a very bluesy performance by a male, obviously black, soul singer (whom I could not identify). What on Earth were they thinking? I didn’t see the spot again on Sunday.

  15. I grew up in the Southern border states of Tennessee and Kentucky, and have had a bunch of exposure to Confederate myth, lore, and history, but I don’t recall ever hearing it described as “The Lost Cause.” I have heard it described as a lost cause, but never in the romantic sense you seem to describe it.

    Perhaps it was taught differently elsewhere, or perhaps my memory of how it was taught has degraded to the point I simply don’t recall. My romantic memories of the Old South just before the civil war are more in line with the early parts of “Gone With The Wind,” and I was never taught that the reason for the civil war was anything other than slavery, nor did I believe it was.

    I have heard the arguments that it was for other reasons as well, and I may have been persuaded briefly that this could’ve been so, but not in decades. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what percentage of the war’s justification in the minds of the two sides was the economic issues of chattel slavery, or the moral cause for stamping out such a profound evil — people will always see themselves as good even when they support a great wrong, and will construct rationalizations to defend that.

    So in summary, “The Lost Cause” referred in that way would not make me think of the Old South or Civil War — it would make me think of the romantic notion of a lost cause in a Quixotic sense rather than as representative of something concrete. It could be that I was exposed to it in the way you describe at some point, but if so, I simply do not recall.

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