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Title:Disempowering through definition: a dialogic ethics for understanding consumer vulnerability through Nike's 'Mike and Spike' advertising and African American consumer history
Author(s):Coleman, Catherine A.
Director of Research:Chambers, Jason P.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Chambers, Jason P.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Christians, Clifford G.; Scott, Linda M.; Berry, William E.
Department / Program:Inst of Communications Rsch
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
consumer vulnerability
vulnerable consumers
African Americans and advertising
advertising history
advertising ethics
dialogic ethics
consumers and meaning
Michael Jordan
Spike Lee
sneaker killings
consumers and meaning
consumer empowerment
Abstract:Through socio-historical and market analysis and through the lens of ethical theory, this research argues that past thinking about vulnerable audiences is insufficiently grounded in evidence, unsubtle in its understanding of markets, and unselfconscious about its own paternalism. As a result, such thinking can actually disempower the very audiences it sets out to protect. This project is not simply a commentary on branding or on an historical incident; it is an important reflection of race relations in the United States and a theoretically important exploration of the power dynamics of defining vulnerability and of the roles and responsibilities of marketers, advertisers, endorsers, the media and consumers. This research proposes dialogic ethics as the framework through which to understand and define vulnerability in the consumer realm. Advertising frequently is criticized for creating and perpetuating negative stereotypes of vulnerable populations. Scholars have criticized the media and, in particular, advertising for reflecting and perpetuating racism in portrayals of minorities, with much popular and scholarly criticism of advertising and race into the 1980s based on the fact that there were few to no positive representations of African Americans in mainstream advertising. In 1984, Nike signed rookie Michael Jordan and, in 1986, Nike’s advertising agency hired Spike Lee to direct commercials starring the athlete-turned-hero. The Spike/Mike campaign became emblematic of a breakthrough in race relations. However, the cultural “success” of the Michael Jordan, Spike Lee and Nike relationship and its influence on the brand was played out on the streets across America. The late-1980s and early-1990s mass media was full of reports about youth—specifically black, urban youth—killing each other for Nike’s Air Jordans. Social discourse on the increasingly mainstream images of African-Americans, initially pleased with the depictions of a positive, successful and empowered black man in advertising, exploded with charges of exploitation and manipulation. The debate was framed by the premise of urban African-Americans as vulnerable to advertising in a unique way. The circumstances of the “sneaker killings”, which coincided with a time of change and re-formation in the advertising industry and its relation to the African American community, offer not only a rich context in and of itself but unsettles current perceptions of consumer vulnerability and are a hub from which to explore broader concerns about this concept—including issues of social, corporate and consumer responsibility, meaning exchange and control, power and discourse and empowerment. This long-running campaign and the discourse surrounding it are powerful expressions of American race relations and an opportunity to address how definitions of vulnerability can affect the marketplace and the populations deemed vulnerable. This research explores the development of the Nike brand through its association with Michael Jordan and addresses to what extent this association came at a time when the black community was looking for and developing new expressions of their social experiences and position within American society, particularly as it was lived on the streets of urban America, and the ways in which that experience was represented to Main Street America. I argue that the Nike example provides a different perspective on the history of race dynamics and advertising than previously has been presented in scholarly inquiry. This case is a rich illustration of the complexities of and consumer engagement with the Nike brand; and because of the various, but similarly partial, interpretations in media and academic journals of the use of the Nike brand by black, urban communities, it provides a strong foundation upon which to question scholarly approaches to vulnerability and responsibility in consumption environments. Thus, the intention of this work is to interrogate the construction of vulnerability and issues of power and responsibility in the consumer realm, and to affect change in discourses of and approaches to consumer vulnerability by re-conceptualizing an approach that both recognizes the structures of power through which consumers must navigate and acknowledges the interpretive domain of human nature. I propose a dialogic ethics as a framework for understanding vulnerability and responsibility in consumer environments. Paulo Freire, in particular, helps us to understand that our humanity is bound in dialogue. Dialogue requires co-participation. The naming of groups as vulnerable through sweeping generalizations neglects to empower the oppressed by giving them voice in the encounter. When definitions of vulnerability are instituted in cultural and social structures of meaning without appropriate respect for and discourse with those so-named, then we risk instituting a culture of silence from the oppressed or “vulnerable.” This dehumanizes the oppressed and diffuses the structures of accountability that come with liberation. Instead, we must engage in true dialogue that accepts multiple voices, presents message that enable critical consciousness and empowers the participants, acknowledges the historical circumstances of our language in discourse, and promotes our humanness, which we find in relation to others.
Issue Date:2010-05-14
Rights Information:Copyright 2010 Catherine Adelaide Coleman
Date Available in IDEALS:2012-05-15
Date Deposited:May 2010

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