NEW YORK (AFP) – Nike’s new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick — the American football player turned activist against police violence — takes a strong stance on a divisive issue which could score points with millennials but risks alienating conservative customers.

The ads prompted immediate calls for Nike boycotts over Kaepernick, who has been castigated by President Donald Trump and other conservatives over his kneeling protests.

The sporting goods giant is using the former NFL quarterback as the face of its new “Just Do It” campaign, launched to mark the 30th anniversary of the iconic slogan.

“We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” said Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand for North America.

The former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick has been effectively blacklisted by the NFL after kneeling during the US national anthem in 2016 in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Nike’s move drew praise in some prominent circles, including former CIA director and leading Trump critic John Brennan, as well as sports journalist Jemele Hill, who have praised Kaepernick for taking a stand against police slayings of unarmed black men.

Picking Kaepernick may turn off some customers, but it likely will strengthen the company’s standing with others, including non-whites and millennials, said Kelly O’Keefe, professor of brand management at Virginia Commonwealth University

“It’s a dangerous move in that I’m certain there is already a boycott under way, but in the case of Nike I think those most likely to boycott are not likely to be their core audience,” O’Keefe said in a telephone interview.

“I think their core audience is likely to be not only supportive of this, but even more enamored of the brand for their willingness to take this stand.”

Choosing sides?

While Kaepernick is not an active player for the league, he has nearly two million Twitter followers and his jersey was still the 39th best-seller in last year’s season.

He tweeted the new Nike advert, featuring a close up of his face, with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” above Nike’s trademark “swoosh” and “Just do it.”

In less than 24 hours since Kaepernick first revealed the spot on Twitter, Nike received more than US$43 million worth of media exposure, the vast majority of it neutral to positive, according to Apex Marketing Group.

The ad was unveiled just days before the kick-off of the 2018 NFL season on Thursday.

The US president has repeatedly and harshly criticised Kaepernick and other NFL players who have protested during the National Anthem as unpatriotic, calling for them to be fired.

Trump told the Daily Caller, a conservative website, that Nike sent a “terrible message” with the Kaepernick ad. But Trump also said companies in the US have “certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do,” according to an interview published late Tuesday afternoon.

It was a restrained response for the president who has taken to Twitter many times to blast companies he views as crossing him.

US political polarisation has been a growing topic at advertising industry conferences, prompting debate on whether it is still possible or viable to try to appeal to the entire market and avoid alienating consumers.

One factor in Nike’s move may be the influence of other popular and powerful Nike-sponsored athletes, such as basketball superstar LeBron James, who has frequently clashed with Trump.

Another leading Nike star, Serena Williams praised Kaepernick and fellow former 49er Eric Reid for their political stances at the US Open last week.

The move sends a strong signal to their current roster of athletes and positions Nike as a savvy risk-taker.

Kevin Plank, chief executive of Nike rival Under Armour, faced tough questioning from star athletes including Steph Curry and ballerina Misty Copeland after praising Trump early in his presidency.

But Nike appeared willing to stand by the football player. ESPN reported that Nike had kept Kaepernick, who signed a sponsorship deal with the company in 2011, on its payroll throughout the controversy of the past two years.

While Nike’s stock was down 3.2 percent on Tuesday, they may be playing a long game, putting it on consumers to vote with their wallets or find another brand who shares their values.