Why Old Navy Gets A Pass

In Business on March 20, 2009 at 10:14 pm

This week, everybody gets a pass. I gave Jackie Mason a pass for calling the President of the United States a ‘schwartza’ and Lou Dobbs got a pass for doing ‘chink’ impressions on national radio.  I even gave Obama a pass for his insensitive comment about Special Olympics.

The gaffes are forgivable if a real effort can be made to understand why they occur. Given the predominant imagery of the day, I don’t think older Americans  see the rest of the country as an extension of themselves. I remember in the Godfather movies how ‘la familia’ was everything; a strike against one of us was a strike against all of us.  While this theme applies for all Americans,  younger people seem to have a much broader definition of what constitutes family.  Apparently they understand that we are all in this together.  Until the perspectives of older Americans change, they will continue to make fun of others and risk continued rudeness and insensitivity.

In America, many older whites view blacks as foreigners or immigrants or something else that is completely different than just a darker version of themselves. Likewise, many straight people make fun of gays because they see themselves as more different than the same. Even Mr. Athletic, POTUS, His Excellency Barack Obama, proved that he is vulnerable to slights against groups that he sees as different from himself. It has become as American as apple pie. Old Navy, the Grandpa Munster of the Gap Inc. family, is no different.

So this is what I think happened.  They needed a campaign to raise awareness for the brand. Given the current social environment, race-baiting proved to be the strategy of choice. Just like Adrian Brody, who, without precedent, violated a married Halle Berry the night of the Oscars with an un-invited kiss, the clothing chain sought to gain attention by reinforcing the historical dominance of white people over blacks. In many cases, they were merely tapping into the underlying fear and resentment felt by whites after having elected a black President. This campaign allowed Old Navy to kill two birds with one stone. They can work their name into the public discourse and at the same time, reassure reluctant whites that their concerns are being heard. Did anyone notice that the black female mannequin’s name is Michelle? No comment.

But I am going to give Old Navy a pass. Yes, I was annoyed, the way I get annoyed when I hear the buzz of a pesky fly in the room.  But seriously, my time is limited and I have bigger fish to fry. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the parts of the commercial that would have annoyed me the most are as follows:

  • a white person strips the dress off the black woman
  • a white man feels entitled to ogle her and openly make comments about her
  • the white man isn’t embarassed that his wife is standing next to him
  • the white man’s wife is powerless to stop her husband’s insensitivity
  • the black husband is emasculated when he tries to protect his wife’s honor
  • the black child, a boy, is made to witness the objectification of his mother
  • the black boy is made to endure his father’s powerlessness in the situation
  • the black woman’s comment suggests embracing of her sudden nudity
  • commercial viewers are left to assume acceptance of this behavior

All these points would have made my blood boil were it not for two things.  First, my black and white friends are equally outraged by this visual depiction; many mentioned it before I commented on Twitter.  Second, my friends are very happy with President Obama, as are the majority of Americans.  This ad may subliminally address the concerns of old people, but it did a poor job of reaching the store’s target audience, young people.  In short, it was a swing and a miss.

So Old Navy gets a pass; like Jackie Mason & Lou Dobbs, they’re irrelevant. The baby boomer dinosaurs in that division’s marketing department will soon be fired. It is simply a matter of time before it becomes painfully clear to the top brass that, like John McCain, Old Navy ‘just doesn’t get it.’  I mean, c’mon… their brand identity has ‘old’ written all over it.

In a way, I feel bad for the personnel at this once-respected retail chain.  The world has changed, my friends. I wish Gap Inc. the best of luck in breathing life into the decrepid corpse of the Old Navy brand. In the words of Lee Iacocca, you either LEAD, FOLLOW or GET  OUT OF THE WAY! In the case of Old Navy, the third choice may be Gap Inc.’s best option.


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