Adidas and Kanye West: What Did Everyone Expect?

Posted May 4, 2018 10:28 p.m. EDT

The petition is up and the Twitterati are awake. Last week Adidas became the latest apparel brand to come under fire for what a celebrity collaborator said after Kanye West gave an interview to TMZ in which he said he thought 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.”

The internet clutched its collective bosom and began to roar.

He tried to walk it back, or at least explain on social media what he really meant, but the damage had been done. Amid the torrent of words and controversial statements that have spewed forth from the volcano of his mouth and mind recently — and there have been a lot, starting with the Trump-love — this was the part that the self-appointed consumer watchdogs of the digital world could not countenance.

As they do whenever they feel a brand has made a mistake, whether with a product (H&M and its monkey hoodie) or a statement (Laura Ingraham and her comments on a Parkland survivor) or a video (PewDiePie), they made their displeasure known.

But this time around, Adidas hasn’t done what pretty much every other big brand has done until now: apologize and cut off the offending limb. Or at least not yet. How come?

Kasper Rorsted, the brand’s chief executive, has repeatedly said that while he doesn’t support West’s comments, they are West’s comments, and though Adidas’ position on human rights was public and firm (and not in alignment with West’s statement), he was not going to comment further on West. Rorsted also went on to acknowledge that West, along with other Adidas collaborators such as Pharrell Williams and Stella McCartney, was a big help in the brand’s comeback in the United States.

Maybe that’s part of it. And maybe Adidas, not being an American company, does not understand the freighted, painful nature of West’s remarks (though presumably its local team does). But I would guess there’s something else going on, too.

Think about it: Could Adidas really not have anticipated the likelihood of something like this happening when it signed West lo, those many moons ago (in 2013)?

Not, to be sure, the slavery comments exactly — but something that would upset or alienate a large chunk of the consumer population, something that would be so offensive to a meaningful group of people that it would become a debating point across the public conversation?

It’s hard to imagine a world where that situation hadn’t come up. Controversy and loose-cannon-ism, speaking off the cuff and without a filter (or seemingly any real forethought), has always been part of the Kanye West brand — part of his appeal and extraordinary hubris and the magnet draw that is a combination of great talent and the constant threat of a train wreck.

He’s endlessly saying the things other people could never even imagine thinking. You never really know what bizarro thing is going to come out of his mouth (or fingers) next. It is the bedrock on which part of his reputation rests. It’s not a secret. It’s addictive. That’s what he does: He goes too far (except maybe with his Yeezy clothes, which are pretty bland and arguably do not go far enough).

Unlike, say, such spokespeople-who-went-wrong as Ryan Lochte, who was dropped by Speedo and Polo Ralph Lauren after the swimmer admitted he lied about being robbed during the Rio Olympics, or Maria Sharapova, whose deals with Nike and Porsche were suspended after she failed a drug test (they later renewed their agreements), West never pretended to be other than what he was: someone who could not, as he tweeted recently, be “managed.”

Adidas couldn’t argue — none of us can — that it was suckered into thinking he stood for a politically correct, modern moralistic approach to the world. This is not to defend or excuse what he said; it was reprehensible. But it was also, at an abstract level, in character.

When Adidas hired West, after all, he had already jumped onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards to announce that Taylor Swift did not deserve the award for best female video and that it should have gone to Beyoncé. He was engaged in something of a public war with his previous sneaker partner, Nike (he eventually wrote a song about it). He wasn’t crocheting lace doilies for the sofa.

Adidas knew what it was getting into. The brand hired him because of his ability to draw attention and incite emotions, not despite it. It wasn’t, let’s be honest (and whatever he may claim) because he’s such a genius sneaker designer.

Unlike his music, there’s nothing groundbreaking or industry-shifting about West’s apparel or his footwear. They don’t stand on their own. The content of the clothing is him. His ego — the one that allowed him to have a fashion show in Madison Square Garden and claim he should be designing for Hermès — and his messianic sense of self fills the product with meaning for his consumers. And they buy it in sellout numbers. He’s right about that.

Or upsets his consumers. Which sometimes in West’s case can seem like one and the same.

It would be hypocritical if Adidas were to drop him now, especially at a time when another out-of-control tweeter is setting the national agenda. Dropping him might in the end do more damage to the company’s reputation than if it gives in to public pressure.

It’s possible this position could shift; it’s possible West could double down to such an extent that it would be untenable for the relationship to continue. And Adidas has punished him a little: Contrary to West’s claims that he is the biggest thing to hit the sneaker market since man was created, Rorsted told CNBC that the Yeezy brand has been important to Adidas but that it is “a small part” of the $25 billion company. Small! That’s got to hurt.

Besides, if consumers really want Adidas to cut ties with Kanye, all they have to do is stop buying the product and make it an even smaller part. That’s the real way to effect change in a company that is reliant on purchasing.

But as of Friday morning, there were 13,407 signatures on this “Drop Kanye” petition. West has 28.2 million Twitter followers. You do the math.