Friday, October 16, 2009

Acceptable pandering

The closest mall to our house has undergone a massive overhaul in the past year. We thought the nation's economic woes might scrap some of those plans, but lo and behold, the grand re-opening came about a week ago, the same October 2009 date that had always been promised on signs outside, that always seemed so far in the future.

This is not a particularly important event in our lives, because a) my wife and I aren't really mall people -- in fact, aren't at all; b) even if we were mall people, we might not choose this one as our regular mall.

Quite simply, this mall has made no bones about being geared toward African-Americans.

And because we are such racists, we would never want to go where such people reside.

Of course that's not true -- if you knew me better, you'd know I make jokes like this to make fun of a person who would actually say such things in earnest, even though I know that's a dangerous line to walk, appropriate for the right company only. Naturally, I consider a website open to the entire world to be "the right company." Then again, I haven't revealed my identity, plus, I'm taking great pains to explain the semantics of my own joke, so you don't misinterpret what I'm saying.

But really, I shouldn't say we don't ever go to this mall, because I've probably been about a dozen times in the three-and-a-half years I've lived within shouting distance. I usually make at least one stop there each Christmas shopping season, which is the one time of year malls become somewhat useful to me. I've also gone there to get my watch band fixed, and to get a quick bite to eat. I'm no stranger.

In fact, I've been just enough times to be really dispirited by the place. Not because it's not a generally dynamic space with generally useful stores, and definitely not because I'm in the minority among a sizeable number of blacks and a smaller number of Latinos.

No, the real reason it dispirits me is because many of the stores go to great lengths to pander to those black customers.

More jewelry stores per capita than most malls. More places to buy pro sports jerseys per capita than most malls. More stores selling the latest and greatest in basketball shoes. And only one small bookstore, not even a full-fledged Borders, but a Borders Express. This is why I might not want to make this my regular mall. By shopping there, I'm essentially saying this kind of "racial profiling," as it were, is not off-putting.

You might say this mall is just a reflection of what the market will bear. Maybe this isn't the best mall to have, say, a tanning salon. And maybe there was a more diverse representation of stores in the past, but some of those places went out of business because they weren't getting enough sales. Most of the people who go there aren't offended by it, so I probably shouldn't be either.

But you know me -- either white guilt or liberal guilt or whatever I have causes me to become offended in situations where I think racial minorities are being abused. There are probably worse afflictions I could have.

And so it is that I probably should feel a little strange that the area of new construction in this mall -- which includes a Target, a Best Buy, a Gold's Gym, and a BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse -- also has a 100-foot-tall advertisement for Disney's The Princess and the Frog plastered on the prime outer wall facing the 405 freeway.

It seems to be saying, in no uncertain terms, "Even though we've made a lot of expensive changes (i.e. changes directed toward white customers) at this mall, we still want your business, black folks."

Well, after all this build-up, I'm going to surprise you:

I'm okay with it.

I noticed it -- that's why I'm writing about it, of course -- but I'm okay with it.

You see, as much as I tend to be disappointed by the way products are marketed to black people -- especially when malls in black areas stock only those products -- I'm even more disappointed by overt attempts at gentrification. Perhaps I am totally cynical, but I have to imagine that the only way such large sums of money would be budgeted to overhaul this mall were if its owners wanted to branch out to whites. After all, it's not like the neighborhood where the mall resides is all black. It's almost as close to Marina del Rey as it is to Inglewood, so it should be a nice, harmonious mix of all ethnicities. A mall where the United Colors of Benneton store actually spills out into the food court and onto the escalators.

But the reality of the situation is, it's a black mall. A black mall whose very viability appears to have been called into question, hence resulting in these massive changes. (Which my wife and I haven't even seen yet. We were going to go last Saturday, but then the day got away from us.)

So if the giant Princess and the Frog poster is really saying "Hey guys, this is still your mall," then hell yeah, I'm okay with it.

Even more optimistically: Maybe the changes to this mall were not white-driven. Maybe the Westfield Group, which owns this and a number of other malls in Los Angeles, is not making a particular play for a new kind of customer. Maybe, like Disney, which this fall is releasing its first film with an African-American main character, Westfield just recognizes the changing face of America, where whites will be a minority inside a couple decades, and purchasing power is (somewhat) equally in the hands of blacks and Latinos as it is in the hands of whites. Maybe Westfield sees a post-Obama America, where presumptions are not made about people's shopping habits based on the color of their skin. After all, they're an Australian company, so they've already got the benefit of the doubt in our household.

So instead of doing the Stephen Colbert finger wag at Westfield for what they may have done in the past, I'm going to give them the temporary thumbs up for what they may be doing in the future. Same to Disney.

Until I actually see the new mall myself, at which point I'm sure I'll find something to carp about.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

A question for you: What were the ads in the space before the Princess and the Frog? Does Disney own that ad space?

Something else to chew on: Princess and the Frog is Disney's big winter movie they're hoping is a hit. So I think that giant billboards are going to be everywhere. And because it's Disney's first African-American princess, yes they are going to go to great lengths to make sure that African-Americans know that it's coming out. That's good business...not racism.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

If that sounded attack-y...not meant to be.

Vancetastic said...

Agreed, and I certainly know your thoughts on how I like to stir up accusations of racism on my blog. In part it's an intellectual exercise, sort of akin to Seinfeld's famous "Did you ever notice ..." structure. Seeing the black couple standing at the back of the poster for Couples Retreat is pretty much a perfect example of the "Did you ever notice ..." structure.

That area is new construction, so it didn't have anything on it previously. And yes, I'm pretty sure that it will be home to movie ad campaigns after this one, though only time will tell. In fact, the real point of this post was to say "This SEEMS like racism, but is really not." Though I *do* still think it's pandering, which is not the same as racism.

I doubt Disney owns the ad space, but of course I don't know. That would be WAY too much research.

Vancetastic said...

Also, for the record, I should have been more clear about the fact that I understand the following: the kind of advertisement that appears in a space that's open to the highest bidder says more about the advertiser than it does about the owner of the space.