Mulvaney madness or masterstroke?

11 April 2023 | 3 min read | Crisis Comms
James Gwinnett
James Gwinnett

Depending on your stance, Nike’s recent campaign, featuring a trans woman, Dylan Mulvaney, modelling a sports bra is either madness or a masterstroke. 

On the one hand, the backlash has been significant. Take the responses of former Olympians Sharron Davies and Caitlyn Jenner. 

For Davies, a prominent campaigner against transgender athletes competing in women’s sport, this is yet another example of those who were biologically assigned male at birth given more prominence or an unfair advantage. The debate rages on about whether trans women should be allowed to compete in women’s sport (a number of governing bodies have recently severely restricted this participation), given the biological advantage of being born with raised testosterone levels.  

But Davies, who medalled in the women’s 400m individual medley at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, points out how inequality extends to sponsorships for female athletes.  

“Women get 1% of… sports sponsorship cash,” she said on Twitter, so it’s unfair that “males now get to advertise our sports bras”. She also claims the campaign is “disrespectful” to women, who face real challenges when finding a sports bra that is fit for purpose… ‘fit’ being the operative word, since Mulvaney doesn’t require such support. Davies told GB News that “the ad feels like a parody of what women are” and has urged people to #BoycottNike. 

Jenner, herself a trans woman, who was the men’s Montreal 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, has also taken a stance against trans athletes competing against women. She has criticised Nike’s partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney, calling it “an outrage”. 

And it’s not the first time Mulvaney has sparked controversy; Bud Light recently put her face on their cans and came under fire (literally), as singer Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting cans of the lager in protest. And since Mulvaney posted the paid partnership on social media, Nike has been fighting fires. In fact, the brand’s crisis communications around the backlash have been poor, simply calling for customers to “Be kind, be inclusive”. 

So, is it “a shame to see such an iconic American company go so woke” (as stated by Jenner), or is it the case that the old adage is true; that “there’s no such thing as bad PR”? 

Because, on the other hand, we’re talking about it. And Nike has done well from sales of sports bras since England’s Chloe Kelly stripped off her shirt in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 final… to reveal a Nike sports bra. 

And it seems Davies and Jenner are missing one pertinent point – that Mulvaney’s advert isn’t necessarily targeting cisgender women. 

The LGBTQI+ community now represents approximately 10 per cent of the global population, which translates into almost £4 trillion in purchasing power. So, when you think about it from the point of view of the target audience, and from a purely PR and marketing point of view, was the campaign really such a bad idea?