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November 22, 2000

Faculty member encourages boycott over ads

Rory A. Cooper has a message for Nike's advertising department: Just Don't Do It Anymore.

Cooper, chairperson and professor of rehabilitation science and technology at Pitt, is urging a boycott of Nike products in response to a recent Nike advertisement calling people with spinal cord injuries "drooling" and "misshapen."

A print ad touting Nike's Air Dri-Goat trail running shoe read, in part: "Right about now you're probably asking yourself, 'How can a trail running shoe with an outer sole designed like a goat's hoof help me avoid compressing my spinal cord into a Slinky on the side of some unsuspecting conifer, thereby rendering me a drooling, misshapen non-extreme-running husk of my former self, forced to roam the earth in a motorized wheelchair with my name embossed on one of those cute little license plates you get at carnivals or state fairs, fastened to the back?'"

After receiving some 600 complaints within two days of the advertisement's publication, Nike pulled the ad. Nike and its advertising agency issued apologies — the wording of which drew further scorn and ridicule from disabilities-rights organizations.

Cooper, an internationally recognized expert on wheelchair design and mobility research, and a wheelchair athlete who's won medals at the 1988 Paralympics in South Korea and other major competitions, said: "The Nike advertisement was extremely offensive and demonstrates a high degree of ignorance about people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the apologies by both Nike and their advertising agency only further illustrate their insensitivity to the issues of importance to people with disabilities and their families."

Nike's original apology appeared in an Oct. 24 press release. It concluded with the sentence: "A former Nike president, Bob Woodell, suffered a spinal cord injury and is confined to a wheelchair, and we have a Disabled Employee Network."

If Nike had an effective disabled employee network, critics said, the company would have known better than to use the insulting phrase, "confined to a wheelchair." (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual cautions, "Do not use 'confined' to a wheelchair.") Critics also objected to the "some of our best friends have spinal injuries" tone of Nike's statement.

An Oct. 25 apology by Dan Wieden, co-founder and CEO of Nike's advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy, stated: "We have hurt a group of people for whom we have enormous admiration. These are men and women who demonstrate more courage in a single day than most of us will in our lifetime; who accomplish more, inspire more, and have far more reasons to be proud."

New Mobility magazine columnist Bob Vogel sneered: "Wieden's condescending apology did more damage than the ad itself by perpetuating the sorry old stereotype that you have to be 'courageous and inspirational' to live with a disability."

Nike has since issued a new apology on the web site: "Down to a man and woman, every Nike employee is personally embarrassed by this ad and we vow to learn from this mistake and grow both personally and professionally."

Cooper dismissed this apology, too, citing Nike's track record of running controversial ads with subsequent apologies.

In 1999, a Nike TV ad showed children in-line skating alongside trains. After viewers complained that children might try to imitate that stunt, Nike pulled the ad. During the Olympics, another Nike TV ad parodied the "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" by showing runner Suzy Hamilton outsprinting a masked man wielding a chainsaw. NBC-TV withdrew that ad following complaints, and Nike again apologized.

"I think these ads are meant to be offensive," Cooper said. "There's a pattern here: You run an offensive ad that generates controversy and a lot of free publicity, then you stop running the ad and issue an apology."

But why risk boycotts and negative publicity?

"Nike wants to promote a bad-boy image," Cooper suggested. "They think that being the baddest shoe company or having the worst 'attitude' or whatever is what sells the most shoes. They seem to think that the people buying their products share that mentality.

"We need to show that there are a lot of other people buying Nike products, that many of these people find Nike's behavior to be unacceptable, and that Nike needs to reconsider its approach to advertising."

Cooper said he would accept an apology for Nike's Air Dri-Goat advertisement if Nike ran it in the same public forum as the original ad. The Air Dri-Goat ad appeared in 11 outdoor magazines with a combined circulation of 2.1 million.

"Nike could afford to take out full-page ads, apologizing and saying 'We're turning over a new leaf and taking a more positive approach to our advertising," Cooper argued. "But instead, they're burying their apologies on their web site or in the form of letters to the editor, which don't cost Nike anything and which may or may not get published."

To promote a boycott of Nike, Cooper has done media interviews and written articles for magazines catering to people with disabilities and their families. He's also lobbied organizations representing people with disabilities as well as professional societies such as the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 7

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