Of Feet and Fame

 “People are more than just the way they look.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

“[Stanley’s] father had been trying to figure out a way to recycle old sneakers, and suddenly a pair of sneakers fell on top of him, seemingly out of nowhere, like a gift from God”
– Louis Sachar, Holes

Some of the best television programming these days comes in the form of advertisements. Millions of dollars in research and creative development go into many of these one-minute-or-less ads, and the result is a highly condensed little piece of propaganda designed to get us to buy a product. Certainly, many commercials are inspiring, highly entertaining, and sometimes downright funny. When it comes to saving (or losing) a few dollars (for example, on car insurance), we might opt for Geico only because they make us laugh. However, as a society of critical thinkers, we ought to take a closer look at the underlying messages of some of these high-profile ads, especially ones relating to children.

Every August, advertising companies amp up their back-to-school campaigns, targeting both parents and students. This is a fat market drawing from those two demographic wells—the easily disposable money of impressionable teens and pre-teens, and the slightly more discretionary investments of parents, who are pressured by the demands of their kids.

Below is a new ad for Famous Footwear. It features a girl of color, somewhere between black and white and Hispanic, and probably in fifth or sixth grade. She marches through the lunch line and pays the lunch lady with a five dollar bill (money she might have saved by shopping at FF) and tells the woman to keep the change. Then she strides boldly toward a table of girls who are portrayed as privileged, snobbish sorts. Initially, they effect appalled, “mean-girl” expressions as she sits herself down next to them. However, as our protagonist hoists her feet onto the table and displays her new, stylish sneakers, the privileged girls are won over. They have accepted her into their exclusive society. The FF voiceover announces, “We’re not just selling shoes, we’re selling straight up confidence.”

There is a pretty transparent message here, at least on the surface. The ad targets middle- to lower-class social groups. The appeal of the ad lies within the great American Dream of equal opportunity and unlimited potential for advancement. For immigrants and idealistic citizens, this might be an inspiring scenario. It highlights the belief that, in America, to succeed, all you need is attitude, determination, and style.

Another point of view, however, challenges the ad on several fronts. First, the ad ignores the fact that one must already have the money to buy brand-name shoes in order to make this upward move. Also, Advertising 101 teaches the two-year age differential—the characters/actors in the ads for young people should appear two years older than the targeted age group. The idea is that younger kids always want to be like the older kids. So, our sixth grade actors are in effect fueling the desires of fourth grade “consumers” who are plenty able to put pressure on their parents.

The underlying message is unabashedly materialistic—we are telling kids flat out that money matters most, and that friendships are founded on what you possess more than what you are made of. Maybe that’s true in much of the adult world, but shouldn’t we be at least a little concerned that a seed is being planted prematurely, and that we are stripping kids of their innocence by imposing such values? I am reminded of the self-indulgence of mothers who force their little girls to compete in beauty pageants.

The fact is that these kinds of ads work; otherwise, companies would not employ them. However, I wonder if there could be some other theory that has not been tested, especially with respect to that vulnerable pre-teen age group. I’m thinking about common themes in our classic fantasy novels and films that explore the value of being alone in order to discover the truth about yourself and the world. Of course Harry Potter has friends, but his most profound moments are within himself as he deals with the death of his parents and the omnipresent evil of Voldemort. Bastian, in The Neverending Story, must explore his own imagination through a kind of escapism (reading a book) in order to face a world of nothingness after the loss of his mother. For Dorothy, her glory comes as she leads others to believe in themselves, not because she follows someone else. She learns that the yellow brick road is a road to nowhere, and, despite its glitzy and festive appearance, Oz is a shallow place without real substance. And finally, Frodo Baggins’ odyssey to the top of Mount Doom is to unload a burden that is the world’s, but at this time and place, it is his burden, and his alone to bear, despite the best intentions of the ever loyal Samwise Gamgee.

I guess in the real world there isn’t much money to be made by dwelling on the virtues of solitude. In today’s America, there is but a one-letter difference between loner and loser. Our heroine in Famous Footwear is bound for somewhere else—she is upwardly mobile and has the sneakers to take her there. The shoes are cool looking—unique, one might say. But they are, in the end, a symbol of conformity and acceptance of status quo, and a far cry from the ideals of American Individualism.

I realize that there is great concern over kids being left alone these days. It is a dangerous world, full of human predators, environmental hazards, unchecked gun violence, and all kinds of terrorism, including extreme bullying. Hence, the rise of helicopter moms and other forms of hyper-parenting. Certainly, these parents are not inclined to allow their children much autonomy, and any advertising that features children acting alone would probably not be an effective means of selling a product.

Yet I worry that, by sheltering children from the real world, we are also sheltering them from themselves. Is it possible that encouraging the kind of social climbing featured in Famous Footwear at such a young age can be detrimental to their personal development as well as to the American ideal? After all, we are taking away from them a kind of wonderful adventure of internal and external exploration as we substitute this new “brand” of conformity disguised as free-thinking and self-determination. For my kid, I would rather buy a pair of hiking boots that she wouldn’t be afraid of getting dirty, the kind that might take her high into the mountains or down to the river, or into a great city where there is music and art, or, most importantly, on some adventure into her own creative mind where she begins to discover who she is as a unique human being on this wondrous planet.