Friday, August 15, 2014

Dear Famous Footwear: Consumerism doesn't solve bullying.

Just in time for the free market's Back to School shop-aganda prompt, Famous Footwear is coming at you with a classic scene:  the cool kids' table in the lunch room.  The table you, adults-who-will-be-making-the-actual-purchases-on behalf-of-the-children, couldn't approach if you were not popular back in your school days. Ah, memories.  Ah, the impulse to improve the lives of our children to a status beyond that which we held at the same stage of larva or pupa. We all know the scene because, true or not to our experience, it has been driven into our skulls as a given of American youth culture.  

Famous Footwear gives us (again, the adults who will be making the actual purchases) a hero.  This hero is in the form of a bad ass young girl (and she is, she is truly bad ass) who tips the lunch lady, then marches over to the cool kids' table (where sit replicas of characters from the movie Mean Girls), props her feet up on the table, then asks if the seat is available.  She is indeed confident, as the commercial's title, "Converse Confidence" promises.

As much as I love the star of this commercial, and her shoes, there are all sorts of problems with this commercial, none of which are her fault, but are the manifestations of the failings of the adults involved with this production. 

One issue is race.  To their credit, the "mean girls" are represented by both one stereotypical, preppy white girl, and another preppy snob of non-white ethnicity.  But the white girl is up front, more centered to the screen, and in fuller focus. So much so that the other snob seems like a sidekick (which presents a whole other bag of issues).  The girl in need of gaining confidence is, again, of an ethnicity other than what which would be immediately recognized as white.  I would not presume to know her exact ethnicity, but a very distinct difference is set up.  Goliath is white, David is black/brown/not-white.  While this may seem to reflect current culture, I would submit that it does not help either group to constantly perpetuate these stereotypes.  White people are not helped by being portrayed as always the snobbish, rich brats.  People of color are not helped by being always portrayed as the lesser-than, the underdog.  The truth is that many white students face scrutiny and criticism from their peers at school.  The truth is that many people of color are financially successful, and dress in a conservative manner, and are not sidekicks to white people.  Why isn't the truth, instead of the stereotype, the cultural story, presented more often in the media?  Because if the truth were presented, that would help.  That would help everyone.  It would help white people to stop other-ing people of color.  Also, it would help if the white-wealthy were not always shown as in possession of not just material goods, but also of very bad manners.  It would help society to have a model of wealth and kindness

Which leads very nicely to my next point.  It is unfortunate that Famous Footwear has chosen to link confidence with aggression, and with poor attitude.  Because that's what the star of their small show is displaying.  Walking up to a table, plopping yourself down, and putting your feet on a table is rude, no matter who does it.  Even if she is the underdog.  Even if the people sitting at the table are little shits and have treated her horribly.  To take a rift off of Ash Beckham's campaign, rude is rude.  While I initially want to cheer for her (and her really awesome shoes), I'm stopped by the fact that I can recognize reactive bullying when I see it.  Because sometimes the fiercest bullies are made out of those who were once bullied.  That's what I see happening in this commercial, and I don't like it.  There are other solutions.

Finally, to get to the point that first ticked me off about this commercial, I want to be the voice of reason here and say: confidence cannot be bought.  It simply cannot.  Believe me, I've tried.  I've tried with my own money, and I've tried with my mother's money.  I remember with a full-body cringe of regret begging my tired, hungry, single mother to buy me all manner of makeup and clothes and magazines in my pre-teen attempts to beautify myself and gain some sense of rightness, of okay-ness, of confidence in this world.  It didn't work.  It doesn't work like the commercial shows.  The truth is that little girls and boys across the country are walking into school with brand new shoes that they adore and are still being bullied and put down and pretty much psychologically tortured at school and, now with social media, beyond school.  The truth is that not every little girl or boy in America can afford new shoes for school, and they deserve confidence tooBecause confidence shouldn't be about possession of material goods.  Shouldn't, but it so often is.  And this commercial is perpetuating that idea, from the moment that the little girl tells the cafeteria worker to "keep the change."  (Do you notice her dismissive attitude when she does it?  Again, confidence linked with a negative attribute.)

Now, I understand that the whole point of a business is to promote consumerism.  I get that. Without consumerism, retail companies could not survive, right? So what do I fucking want here?  A communist state?  These shoes don't sell themselves!  It's not like the shoes are that awesome! I mean, what are they supposed to have, confidence in their product or something??? (Irony, yes?) Just running a commercial about confidence without linking confidence to their product in a psychologically manipulative way wouldn't sell shoes!

Or would it?

What if the company linked themselves to an organization that promoted real esteem for students?  Or an anti-bullying campaign?  Or an anti-poverty campaign specifically for students whose families cannot afford shoes? And what if they ran a commercial campaigning for that organization, instead of just for their shoes?  And what if they raised money for that organization and, because people noted their sponsorship and decided to buy their shoes, they sold some of their mother fucking shoes too

What if that happened? 


Anonymous said...

You are so right, Amber! This commercial is disgusting. I'm almost 70, a retired teacher, and a great grandmother of 3 boys. The oldest was bullied last year in 3rd grade over sneakers, so I know how hurtful kids can be. You seem to be a very well spoken person who gets it. I would love to see you keep this outrage over this commercial going until they apologize and take it off the air.

Amber said...

Thanks for the kind words! I would love them to remake this commercial with a better message. I can show them how! The little girl really is cute as a button - they wasted an opportunity. Famous Footwear, are you listening? Hire me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Amber for saying what many are thinking about this commercial. I HATE the message it is sending. How about showing a young girl with character rather than one with new shoes. I hope more people will speak up and get this commercial banned.

Amber said...

Thanks for your kind words! I'm glad that there are others who agree.

Anonymous said...

Disgusting commercial! I'm a 22 year old guy and even I believe the message this send to boys is horrible. If this is "the norm" for the new generation of young boys to act, I'll pray for any future daughter I would have.

Amber said...

Stay tuned! I'm about to blast them again. Because they did it again.