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Apple and Nike partnership: A brand too far?

Apple and Nike are partnering up to produce the Nike+iPod sports kit, but can the Apple brand neatly skirt around the image problems that have pursued Nike?

Here's a conundrum for you. What do you get when you mix Nike, a company that ranked just below McDonalds in a recent survey of consumer's perceptions about unethical corporations, with one of the world's most loved brands? (Apple was ranked second in a Brandchannel survey).

Cupertino is far from the clothing sweatshops of Sri Lanka or Indonesia -- but how will Apple's collaboration with Nike on the Nike+iPod Sports Kit be received by Apple's core audience of creatives? Can Apple, a company that once used Gandhi and the Dalai Lama in its advertising campaigns, slickly manoeuvre around the labour practices of Nike?

As a technology company, Apple enjoys a clean image. From the appealing mythology of its beginnings in Steve Jobs' family garage, to its current home, a sun-soaked California campus packed with long-haired dreamers, the brand seems, from the outside, like a picture of the liberal capitalist idyll. The Apple logo itself was once rainbow-coloured -- it was almost as if the designers had stopped just short of a tie-dyed peace sign.

Yet, on the same day that Apple announced its partnership with Nike, an Oxfam press release reported that Nike continues to "use suppliers in Asia where workers -- mainly women -- are forced to work long hours for low wages and face dismissal if they protest against their conditions." For Apple, this is unfamiliar territory.

Apple has always been keen to maintain its image as the charming outsider. Charles Pillar, a columnist for the LA Times, told Wired in 2002, "Members of the Mac's original engineering and marketing team told me all about [their marketing plan]. They did it by building a sense of belonging to an elite club by portraying the Mac as embodying the values of righteous outsiderism and rebellion against injustice."

Given these ideals, it seems especially odd that Apple should partner with a company that, in the public eye, is an icon of injustice. As recently as 2005, Nike's own research reported that a quarter of its factories were found to have workers at risk from a range of problems, which included "sexual abuse", "death" and "serious injury".

Apple has put itself in a dangerous ethical position. The explosion of Apple products into the mass market, and the company's courting of the fashion world, meant it was only a matter of time before the clean white logo faced the challenges of mass-market consumer brands. Apple once represented freedom of creative expression and a break from the mainstream, but now consumers will have to reconcile this with deals such as this new Nike partnership.

Apple's famous 1984 Macintosh advertisement shows a character breaking free from the oppression of an Orwellian society. The advert won many awards for its creative vision. Given the recent news of the Nike collaboration, and the criticism of Nike's labour practices, it's interesting to note that this character was a runner. Would the ad still have rung true if she had been wearing Nike trainers? -Chris Stevens