How Do You Solve A Problem Like Yeezy?
Well, the other shoe finally dropped, and it’s the same one that graced the feet of Run-DMC: Adidas. The shoe company has officially terminated its business relationship with Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, following a string of flagrantly anti-semitic remarks made both behind closed doors and in the harsh, blinding studio lights of a major news network (I’ll let you guess which news network). It’s a partnership that goes back a decade and one which made both parties a wild amount of money. The Yeezy brand, produced in collaboration with the entertainer, accounts for a significant percentage — 7% in 2021 — of Adidas’ total revenue and returned the company to relevancy in the hip-hop community; in exchange, Adidas made Ye a billionaire.
There has to be something terribly liberating about being a billionaire; there is so little anyone can do to you that can have any meaningful consequence for your life. You can work people for poverty wages and launch yourself into space on a rocket, and most people will think about the rocket and not the wages. It must feel as if your gravity, and your gravity alone, is so powerful that nothing can move you. But, as Archimedes said, give me a fulcrum and I will move the world.
Thus: in an encouraging sign for the continued sanity of the American people, spending time going on television to specifically and loudly trumpet bald antisemitism turns out to have been leverage enough. Adidas did its best to weather the storm, and of course it did; capitalism is, at the end of the day, about money, and Yeezy makes Adidas a lot of money. It’s a rational calculus in 2022: lots of people are awful, but usually not enough people actually care. Dave Chappelle still has a development deal at Netflix, Louis C.K. won a Grammy and has a nearly sold out upcoming tour, and that’s just comedians. So sure, Adidas thought it could hold its nose and wait for Ye to do what Ye always does: drop an album and make everyone remember why he’s so famous in the first place. The man knows how to make a hit. But Phil Spector did too, so…
What was Adidas to do?
Look, I know it’s not a small thing for a company to make the decision to cut off a solid chunk of its revenue stream, and Ye’s mental health troubles (that have plagued him his entire career and destroyed his marriage to Kim Kardashian) are well-documented, so I wouldn’t be shocked if Adidas wanted to believe this wasn’t an accurate reflection of Ye’s character. But that thinking is dangerous — for brands and for communities targeted by hateful rhetoric.
Words matter. They have power. That’s why I love what I do so much.
In cases like these, words can and do cause real harm and danger. And they cannot be tolerated, full stop. Acting quickly is always critical in a PR crisis, but it’s even more vital when dealing with dangerous rhetoric and hate speech — this goes beyond a mere reputation crisis, it creates a moral imperative. It demands taking a stand. I’m pleased to see Adidas ultimately got up, but the slow pace at which it moved to its feet is troubling.
While other brands lept into action, Adidas said nothing. Not a milquetoast condemnation with a vague commitment to ensure Ye is held accountable, not a we are reviewing our deal terms, not even a simple repudiation of antisemitism in principle with no meaningful action taken. No, Adidas remained in its seat, at least insofar as the public could see.
I try not to assume malice where ignorance will do, and I believe the most likely situation here is simply that Adidas was reluctant to damage a partnership that made it so much money. But the result was — in my view as a 41-year PR veteran — much more lasting damage done to the brand’s reputation. Adidas’ lack of response gave the appearance of tolerating antisemitism, which is not meaningfuly different from actually tolerating it, because at the end of the day, it’s clear the first concern was its bottom line. That’s something no brand can afford to communicate in today’s media landscape, where values and branding are inextricable.
Time will tell if Adidas waited too long to prevent the worst damage; we won’t know that until we’ve seen quarterlies for next year. But it undeniably took a big, unjustifiable risk — both with its own brand and with the lives of those in the Jewish community.
That contempt for decency, for its customers, for civility and goodness, is a stain on its sneakers that may not so easily be wiped away.