One Joking Question Tanked a Multimillion-Dollar Sponsorship With Nike

Sean Kernan

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It’s not often that a person blows a million-dollar opportunity in one question, and a joking one at that. They say any good joke contains an element of truth. Perhaps this one conatined a little too much.

Nike’s Notable Marketing Blunders

Nike has a quirky and sometimes controversial history with sponsorships. First, there was “Jackass” star and skateboarder, Bam Margera. They paid him to wear their shoes, despite not having any shoes designed for skateboarding.

Unsurprisingly, Margera hated wearing them. So much so that, to keep his sponsorship, he secretly cut the logos off and put them on other skating shoes.

Then there were reports that Nike was cutting sponsorships from female athletes who got pregnant and needed time to recover from childbirth. To their credit, they’ve since changed their policy. If anything, celebrating motherhood was an easy marketing opportunity they missed.

And just as women often get pregnant, comedians make jokes.

The Era of “The Hangover”

Zach Galifianakis was a highly gifted underground comedian, well known among standup comedy aficionados. He later became a breakout sensation for his role in “The Hangover.”

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As his fame is soared, Nike was trying to use new promotional angles with younger demographics.

Just as they’d tested out skateboarding, they figured a comedian was a noble marketing experiment. They wanted Zach to wear Nike shoes at red carpet events and also star in commercials as a personal trainer.

And here’s the problem — Nike’s team clearly didn’t understand the comedian's sense of humor and hadn’t watched much of his standup. Even by comic standards, he is unconventional. He enjoys challenging people with deadpan, stupidly funny questions.

For example, he asked the Grand Wizard of the KKK if he’d ever seen “Big Momma’s House 3” (a film with a predominately Black cast). And yes, a “Grand Wizard” is the title for the top KKK official. Hopefully, you won’t need to use this information.

His Nike Sponsorship

Zach’s agent sets up a call with Nike. The day arrives. Everyone dials in and Nike’s team is excited to discuss the huge opportunity.

Within five minutes, Zach, in his typical way, chimes in and says:

“So are you still having children make all your stuff?”

It was all crickets on the other side of the line. No laughter.

He’d touched on a still-sore subject. The call went on, awkwardly, for a few more minutes. Zach and his agent never heard back from Nike. And for the record, they didn’t answer the question.

His question wasn’t off base. Nike controls 62% of the athletic footwear market and the vast, vast majority of their shoes are made offshore.

Years earlier, in the 1990s and 2000s, stories broke that Nike was using sweatshops in Malaysia and other south Asian countries. Many of the workers were underage and being paid as low as 14 cents an hour. Even worse, they were expected to work ridiculous hours and in unsafe conditions. One group of women employees were forced to run laps because of mistakes in the factory.

It led to big, embarrassing protests around the country in front of their stores.

The sweatshop scandal nearly cost Nike its popularity and its foothold on the market. Several athletes left the brand and even more threatened to do the same. Unsurprisingly, it led to lots of turmoil within Nike offices.

Then CEO, Phil Knight, took action to turn the company around and was blunt about the situation.

“The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse. I truly believe the American consumer doesn’t want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

To be fair, Nike deserves credit for turning the company around. They’ve made huge strides in improving working conditions. Though you can still count on their shoes being made extremely cheap, off-shore, and sold back to you for an 80%+ profit.

Perhaps Nike could take a lesson from a comedian and not take themselves too seriously.

It was all just another day for Zach. He made his living by making blunt jokes and being himself.

He went on to make a huge fortune with “The Hangover” sequels and famously did his “Between Two Ferns” series, interviewing a big list of celebrities, including President Barack Obama.

So if through some sheer twist of good fortune, you or I find ourselves on a call with a major sponsor, do your best not to crack a joke about the elephant in the room. Or if you are like Zach — just do it — but make sure you come and tell us about what happened.

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