In celebrating the renovation of a derelict church in inner city Chicago, Nike’s recent advert “The Church” unapologetically elevates the brand to God-like status.
Earlier this year sports brand Nike released an advert documenting the transformation of a derelict church in inner city Chicago into a basketball court. While it’s no doubt a valuable refurbishment and clearly useful to the local community, the advert betrays several underlying problems with the adaptive reuse project.
The advert begins with a young teenager explaining that “Chicago is my home, where I grew up all my life. There’s a lot of gun violence and stuff, it’s not really safe to play basketball outside.” His account is then supported by clips from various local news reports describing the epidemic of gun violence in inner city Chicago. As another teenager explains, people get killed playing basketball outside, “I don’t want to be one of those people” he says.
With the scene set, text appears over shots of dilapidated buildings (presumably those in the surrounding neighbourhood): “In inner city Chicago, a condemned church was given new life, a place for Chicago’s youth to restore their faith in community”. The advert treats inner city decline and gun violence as a given, spending no time dwelling on their causes. Instead, it jumps right into introducing the project that will, in its own small way, help solve the problem.
Outsourcing as a Cause of Inner City Decline
And yet, it is not a stretch to say that brands like Nike have had a hand in such inner-city decline. Prior to the 1970s most US garment companies had their manufacturing operations located in industrial cities like Chicago. Whole communities were built around such industries and whole communities were destroyed when they left to set up shop in other parts of the world where workers were cheaper and less organised.
Nike was one of the early adopters of this practice of outsourcing. Its success led other companies to follow suit. Now, like many other American brands, Nike’s US-based factories account for a fraction of its global workforce (in Nike’s case less than 1%). Aside from its devastating impact on formerly industrial cities in the US, outsourcing has also had the effect of separating people’s consumption habits from the underlying production process, thus enabling the miserable sweatshop working conditions in factories elsewhere in the world to go mostly unnoticed.
Take me to Church
Throughout the advert, “Take me to Church” plays on the soundtrack, beginning with its composer, Hozier, singing gospel-style the words “Amen! Amen! Amen!”. As the advert cuts to scenes of the renovated church, the song reaches its euphoric chorus:
Take me to church
I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
If this song and the name of the project hadn’t already convinced you of the sacred connotations this advert is attempting to impose upon the project, we later hear from local Reverend Ricardo Bailey, who explains that the church may have been made into a basketball gymnasium but it’s still a church building: “It’s a place where people gather together and share their hopes and dreams. And who knows, what kind of seeds are going to be planted in the lives of those young people when they leave from that place.”
Nike as God
But if this court is the church then surely our God is Nike. Like a God, Nike’s presence in the advert is distant, although there are three subtle clues of their benevolence. Firstly, the advert talks to Heter Myers from Nike Communications, who says that the Church is intended to inspire the next generation “to go after their crazy dreams”. Secondly, all the kits and equipment are produced by Nike. And thirdly, a Nike swoosh merged with “The Church” briefly appears at the beginning and end of the advert. None of these clues, however, tell us definitively that Nike is responsible for the refurbishment.
However, unlike the Christian God who first taketh and then giveth away, Nike taketh and then giveth away. Which is to say, it’s only after its economic practices have ravaged inner city America that the brand has deigned to give a small thing in return. The Church is a good renovation, but it pales in comparison to the damage the company has caused over the past several decades.