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The Nike Air Native N7—Should We Market Shoes to Specific Demographics?

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It has come to my attention that near the end of 2007, Nike boasted about releasing a running shoe that specifically targeted Native American communities. Nike developed the shoe toto address the specific fit and width requirements for the Native American foot.” Since Native Americans have a high rate of obesity and diabetes (“diabesity”), then it seems that it would be a good thing to promote a shoe specifically for and to the population in question. But do such gestures translate to racist ideas or do they translate to a corporation wanting to be seen as promoting health (while their ultimate goal is profit)? Nike, specializing in athletic clothing, surely would be a good organization to spearhead such a movement, right? On what research is this initiative based on and does it hold water?

Through such outreach programs, Nike hopes to be seen to make social and community impacts when it comes to health. As Welch (2019: 12) notes, the N7 imitative hopes “to further promote sport and physical activity in Native American communities.” Such programs and specific items that would catch the eye of the consumers in question to heighten their physical activity and, subsequently, lessen their rates of fatal diseases, should be seen as a good thing, which would be irrespective of the feelings of the groups in question who see such outreach as racist.

The shoe was developed by a podiatrist named Rodney Stapp who served the Native community for his whole life (b. 1961, d. 2016). This was the first—and since then, only—time that Nike developed a shoe for a specific racial group. Was it a good idea? Was it racist? Even if it could be construed as racist, wouldn’t it be negated by targeting a group that has some of the highest rates of diabesity in America, therefore leading to a more active population and mitigation of the diseases in question? (See Broussard et al, 1991; Narayan, 1996; Acton et al, 2002). Since exercise seems to be necessary in managing diabetes and its symptoms (Colberg et al, 2010; Kirwan, Sacks, and Nieuwoudt, 2018; Borhade and Singh, 2020), then it seems that, irrespective of whether or not such gestures are racist, that such outreach and initiatives are a net good for the population in question.

Stapp was a big-name figure in the outreach to Native groups in Texas, and was the podiatrist that Nike consulted with in the development of their Nike Native American N7 shoe. Stapp was the one that contacted Nike to make such a shoe, since the patients that he serviced did not like the black and bulky shoes that were specially developed for diabetics—the efficacy of such shoes, though, have been debated in the literature (e.g., Brunner, 2015), while others have noted that diabetics have stated that the style and appearance of such diabetic shoes are the reasons why there is such low compliance in wearing them (Macfarlane and Jensen, 2003). In any case, wouldn’t marketing shoes toward specific demographics be a net-good, irrespective of the ultimate goals of the company if they would then promote healthier behaviors in the population in question?

Nike, though, has been criticized for the initiative, with Native right’s groups claiming that Nike is using Native plight for profit (Cole, 2008; Sanders, Phillips, and Alexander, 2018). It has been criticized by such groups since they have embroidered the shoe with feathers and sunsets, arrows, and different kinds of symbolism prevalent in Native cultures in the Americas. Here, I would not say that such things are racist on its face, it’s just a marketing ploy to sell more of their shoes. While it can be construed that such marketing is racist in a way, I think that the good such a program and shoe would do to reach at-risk populations outweighs any racist connotations that the shoes and the outreach program makes.

But most would have a problem with the claim that the shoe was developed specifically for “Native American feet”. Stapp claimed that “Indians tend to have a wider foot, but their heels are about average“, which would indicate slippage while running in a normal running shoe. Nike’s press release on the shoe says that “A strong emphasis was placed on providing a performance product that would cater to the specific needs of Native American foot shapes and help provide motivation to Native Americans predisposed to, or suffering from, health issues that can be improved by leading physically active lifestyles“, while also stating that “Research has engaged individuals from over 70 tribes as well as consulting podiatrists and members of Indian Health Services and the National Indian Health Board.

(I am unable to find the research in question; hopefully someone can point me in the right direction so that I can find it.)

There is a history of such differences in the appendages between North and South Native Americans—where North Americans have longer and more slender feet than South Americans (e.g., Kate, 1918). Nike stated that the reason they developed the shoes were so that they could accommodate Native American’s wider feet, along with combating the diabesity epidemic that affects them. In 2015, though, Stapp stated that he believed the introduction of the shoe dropped amputations from 5-6 per year to 0-1 per year. If it is indeed true that the shoes were related in lowering the incidences of foot amputations in Native communities, then it would seem that the cause of that would be that they are moving more and getting more blood to their lower extremities which would then lead to lowered rates of amputation in these diabetic populations.

The claim that such shoes “racially profile” Natives is ridiculous. Stapp said that Nike asked him if there were differences in the feet of Native groups compared to others to which he answered “Yes.” Apparently, around the time of the marketing for the shoes, Nike was told that Native Americans had problems fitting into Nike’s ‘normal’ running shoes due to the width of their feet (being wider than average). Along with Natives supposedly having wider feet, since diabetes causes inflammation of tissue, which is concentrated in the feet—for instance, with diabetic foot ulcers (Pendsey, 2010; Schoen and Norman, 2014; Tuttolomondo, Maida, and Pinto, 2015; Amin and Doupis, 2016)—would seem that the call for such shoes to be develop would be a net-good for the population.

Though I can see how the claims that the shoe targeted at a specific racial group could be construed as racist, the net-good that a shoe does in getting to certain populations would outweigh the negative connotations that the racist accusation brings on Nike. Indeed, some of the developers of the shoe were Native, worked with Natives, and developed it to specifically target and help Natives manage a debilitating disease that leads to many negative health outcomes—like foot amputation and eventually death. So if exercise is conducive to managing diabetes and diabetic foot and the N7’s would then target certain populations with different average foot morphology, then it seems that the shoe has been a net-good for the population since, according to Stapp, seven years after the introduction of the shoe diabetic foot amputations went from 5-7 to 0-1 per year. While he may have had financial incentives to say that, I don’t think that it underscores the fact that Nike’s N7 program did not have positive benefits—even if they could be construed in a negative way (i.e., claims of racism).

The answer to the question “Should we market shoes to specific demographics” is “Yes.” It would be a good idea to, for example, make more demographic-specific shoes with specific embroideries in order to attempt to target certain at-risk populations that are more likely to acquire certain diseases on the basis of physical inactivity—like the Nike N7 program and Nike Native American N7 shoe attempt to do. It is for these reasons, then (irrespective of whether or not such morphologic claims of the feet of Natives are true) that the initiative in question is a good thing. The moral “should” question on whether or not we “should” market things—in this example, shoes—to certain demographics seems to rest on whether or not the marketing would have a positive effect on the lifestyles of the groups in question. If it does have positive effects, then we should market such programs toward at-risk populations, irrespective of claims that such marketing is racist toward certain groups.