Sneaker marketing falls shy as a cool feat
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The hysteria generated by celebrity-designed sneakers proves that zombies don't always come in the form of bath salt-swigging, flesh-eating marauders at the local mall.
The story in Saturday's Post-Gazette about the young men who camped for days outside a Downtown sneaker store to buy a pair of Nike's Air Yeezy II sneakers is one of the sadder manifestations of desire we're likely to see.
Several of the young men camped out for as long as four days. At $245 a pair, the limited-edition sneakers designed by rapper Kanye West would be sold to the first four people in line and by raffle to others. The "hand skived anaconda textured leather quarter panels" aside, there's nothing special about these sneakers.
The rarity of the shoe is totally artificial and short-lived, thanks to an economy that operates on the principle that every manufactured object of desire will eventually be available for whatever price the market can bear.
Just as every Harry Potter book is available the next day despite the hype and hysteria the evening it goes on sale, anyone who wants a pair of Air Yeezy IIs can stroll into any sneaker outlet a month from now and buy them without missing school, work or meals.
Those who brave the elements for days for the privilege of buying molded pieces of rubber with a celebrity's name stitched on understand that their job is to demonstrate the shoe's desirability. As squatters, they are the unpaid side of the product's marketing equation. Given that even exploited workers in the foreign factories where the shoes are manufactured are paid something, this is an amazing development. America is one of the few places on Earth where peasants care more about street cred than insults to their dignity.
Invariably, the image of minority kids standing in line for days to buy celebrity-endorsed sneakers raises questions about values and priorities in a country that does such a lousy job educating those who can least afford to spend their limited resources on ephemeral junk.
Nike's whole existence is dedicated to convincing people that they can't run fast, play ball or be cool unless they display its corporate "swoosh" on some piece of apparel somewhere on their bodies. The unholy union of celebrity charisma and ruthless corporate marketing is on display for all to see in their alliance. There's nothing subliminal about it.
When I'm not despairing of living in a time when so many minority kids are hypnotized by the allure of expensive sneakers, I indulge in a thought experiment: Imagine what would happen if the marketing geniuses who make $250 sneakers so appealing to the least sophisticated people in this country were to use their expertise to make education more appealing to that population.
Instead of conditioning people to sit for days in line for the chance to buy a pair of sneakers, why not train them to camp out for effective schools and teachers? Imagine a marketing campaign that could turn a thirst for knowledge into a meme powerful enough to convince kids in urban schools that education was cooler than a pair of sneakers.
What would happen if intelligence was marketed as ruthlessly as junk food and violence in these communities? Wouldn't it be amazing if posters of "Scarface" on bedroom walls were replaced by posters of intellectuals or the periodic table or certificates of academic achievement?
What would the national landscape look like if minority kids took full advantage of every educational opportunity, no matter how meager, and turned it into a chance for personal and community fulfillment? What would it be like to live in a country where "Stop acting white" would be an impossible thing for a black kid to say to another black kid who chose to read a book in public?
Imagine a country where minority kids performed to their full potential because their families and teachers conspired to hold them personally responsible for mastering the intricacies of the subjects at hand. Imagine black kids who acted more like the generation that emerged with their souls intact from slavery. Those newly liberated souls considered the pursuit of education an inextricable part of their march to freedom.
Imagine the price of sneakers falling by 80 percent because we were all too intelligent to succumb to marketing gimmicks. What an amazing country this would be.
First Published June 12, 2012 12:00 am