Why Nike sued Satan but spared Jesus

Topics Nike  | Shoes | advertising

Nike filed a trademark infringement against the art collective MSCHF in early April this year. The art collective had made "Satan Shoes" that purportedly contained a drop of human blood in the soles — the $1,018 (£740) trainers were modified Nike Air Max 97s. Only 666 pairs were made, and all but one had been shipped. The controversial shoes that invited Nike’s ire were produced by the Brooklyn collective in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X, who held the last pair so that he could choose the recipient personally. MSCHF said it would now keep the final pair of shoes.

MSCHF sold the black and red shoes in less than a minute of putting them on offer. The shoe sale coincided with the launch of Lil Nas X's latest song Montero (Call Me By Your Name), which had debuted on YouTube only days earlier, albeit with its share of controversy. The song features the rapper, who came out as gay in 2019, celebrating his sexuality and rejecting attempts by anyone to shame him. In the stylistically produced music video, Lil Nas X slides down a pole from heaven to hell, dances provocatively with Satan and seduces him, then snaps his neck and steals his horns. The imagery and the shoes that both reference the Bible verse Luke 10:18 — "So He told them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ " have invited both bouquets and brickbats.

Nike and MSCHF, to start with, could not even agree if there was actually a conflict at all. Nike’s claim was that the "Satan Shoes [were] likely to cause confusion and dilution and create an erroneous association" between MSCHF’s products and those of the Nike company. But MSCHF refuted that by saying that the shoes were "individually-numbered works of art" and did not sow any confusion whatsoever.

The courts sided with Nike and issued a restraining order that included the recall. The intellectual property litigation group, Debevoise & Plimpton, that represented MSCHF in court however ironically claimed that the court order was actually a victory. They claimed that the artistic messages the art collective hoped to convey were "dramatically amplified" by the lawsuit. The lawyers went on record to say, "MSCHF intended to comment on the absurdity of the collaboration culture practised by some brands, and about the perniciousness of intolerance."

This is not the first time MSCHF has courted controversy. In 2019, MSCHF bought a normal pair of Nike Air Max 97 sneakers at market value, for about $160; completely revamped the shoe by adding a golden Jesus on a crucifix as a shoelace charm; then sourced holy water from the River Jordan, which was blessed by a priest in Brooklyn and added it to the soles of the sneaker. The new "Jesus Shoe" went on sale for $1,425 and sold for that price within a minute. The buyer subsequently listed the sneaker on the resale website StockX for $4,000. The Jesus Shoe became the most Googled shoe of 2019. Nike, strangely however, did not sue MSCHF and let the matter pass.

With the Satan Shoes, however, Nike was quick to react. Religious and conservative consumers started calling for a Nike boycott, being completely unaware that it wasn’t an official pair from the brand. There was a strong backlash taking place across Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok — loud enough for Nike to come out and promptly distance itself from the sneakers. And it sued MSCHF for "trademark infringement and dilution, false designation of origin, and unfair competition." Unlike the Jesus Shoe, which asked consumers what a collaboration with Christ would look like, the Satan Shoe included many layers other than just religion.

The overhang of Li Nas X’s video had also perhaps much to do with Nike’s decision to sue. The song had amassed over 55 million views since its release. On one side it was being praised for being "unapologetically queer," on the other hand conservatives deemed it "blasphemous" due to the video’s provocative religious context. Lil Nas X was also being criticised for releasing the video on the "eve" of Holy Week, leading up to Easter. In the public mind, Li Nas X’s messaging and the Satan Shoes were connected. And the red-and-black shoes had a Nike swoosh on them. Nike really had no choice but to press the eject button on MSCHF. Surprisingly though, Nike did not make Li Nas X a respondent.

Satanism is not a theme Nike could be seen to be associated with in any which way. The modified pair of black and red Satan-inspired Nike Air Max 97 sneakers, with a bronze pentagram charm and 60 cubic centimetres of red ink and human blood from around six MSCHF employees in the mid-sole may have been art to MSCHF. They looked more like a devilish noose to Nike – that too with 666 knots! />
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