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Selling Sneakers By Violating Young Minds

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page B01

More than two dozen young men had been waiting for nearly an hour when the Downtown Locker Room shoe store in Temple Hills opened at 10 a.m. Sunday.

They were hoping to be among the lucky ones who would walk away with a pair of Michael Jordan's latest release -- or "limited" rerelease in this case: the Nike Jordan Retro 13 "Altitude," a basketball shoe that first came out in the early 1990s.

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This time, the black and green sneaker was selling for $160 a pair, $10 more than the originals. The Downtown Locker Room had 60 pairs in stock and sold out within an hour.

And so it went at select shoe stores throughout the Washington area over the weekend. At a Downtown Locker Room in Waldorf, customers who called ahead were advised to show up at least an hour before the store opened at 7 a.m. Sunday. The line began forming in the cold of dawn, and before the sun could break through the morning fog, all the Retro 13s were gone.

Told that the sneaker he had just bought for $160 probably cost $2 to make, a young man who works as a cook at a fast-food restaurant told me gleefully: "I don't care if they cost a penny to make. These are Jordans." Those who overheard him nodded in agreement.

For those who missed out, there is always the Internet, where the Retro 13 has been selling for as much as $300 a pair.

During the past two decades -- ever since Jordan signed as the pitchman for Nike in 1985 -- the craze over Jordan shoes has been much discussed. This is especially true in black urban areas where the popularity of Jordan shoes and other brand-name apparel has been associated with thefts, armed robberies and even homicides.

The public could stand to know more about the marketing strategies that fuel these desires -- and the socioeconomic implications of having consumers under a spell.

On March 11, scholars from throughout the country will gather at Howard University to share their knowledge on the subject at a three-day conference, "Consuming Kids: How Marketing Undermines Children's Health, Values & Behavior."

Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, will moderate panel discussions on such subjects as the sexualization of childhood in advertisements, the economics of obesity and the commercial branding of children in public schools.

"Even parents who are trying to do the right thing must realize what they're up against," said Velma LaPoint, a professor of child development at Howard and one of the conference organizers. "They may be trying to promote positive child development, but at the same time, you've got a marketing industry trying to hire people like me to tell them what a child's vulnerabilities might be at certain ages. In very scientific ways, they set out to capitalize on a child's need to belong and to create in them a feeling that they must always have something new to be accepted."

Sonny Vaccaro, a Nike executive in 1985 and the man credited with bringing Jordan onboard, dismissed talk of marketing boogiemen and said classic Jordan shoes, like old Frank Sinatra recordings, help keep a glorious past alive.

"What we saw happen with Michael, and carry on to other individuals, was a legacy and a myth wrapped up into one thing: a shoe," said Vaccaro, now a consultant to Reebok. "It was incomprehensible, and it grew to mystical proportions. What we are seeing now is a new generation wanting to be a part of that. All humans want to be connected to greatness and glory, and now people are connecting with that, and each other, through the shoe."

When I noted that $160 seemed a lot to pay for such a connection, Vaccaro replied: "And they'll pay $260 and $270 when it's time to pay that number."

No doubt the human need for connection is strong. Scholars at the conference on marketing to kids would do well to keep that need in mind and to consider ways to satisfy it that last longer than a shoe.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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