Blog Post #7: The Culture Behind the Shoe

While doing research for my timeline project, I encountered the article Classic Campaigns- “ It’s Gotta Be the Shoes.” This article by Catherine A. Coleman does a wonderful job adding to the importance of our understanding of material culture studies exploring the culture behind Air Jordan brand.

In the article, Coleman begins by giving an overview of an ongoing debate about the Jordan Brand. When Nike’s advertising agency hired Spike Lee, an African-American film director, in the mid 1980’s to direct commercials for the up and coming basketball star Michael Jordan, they had no idea the amount of success and controversy it would cause. While Nike, Spike Lee, and Michael Jordan were successful as businessmen, critics of their business practices resulted in the trio being implicated in what came to be known as the “sneaker killings.”

A columnist for the New York Post, Phil Mushnick, was credited for sparking the debate about the questionable practices of Jordan, Lee, and Nike. Muschnick had paralleled Jordan to that of a drug dealer. Mushnick’s argument rested on the premise that Lee, Jordan, and Nike lacked social responsibility for endorsing sneakers at such a high price, which in turn caused young teens to commit crimes as bad as killing to acquire a pair. Spike Lee responded to Mushnick’s claim by calling his comment “thinly veiled racism.”  Furthermore, Lee asked why Muschnick would single out three of the most important role models for young African-Americans. Lee argued that Mushnick’s logic implied that


“ poor whites won’t kill for a pair of Jordans, but poor blacks will. . . . It is crazy to think that all black kids who can’t afford the sneakers are resorting to selling crack to buy them. Any kid who is selling crack is not doing that just to sport a pair of Jordans.”


For the purposes of material culture, who is right or wrong is not as important as the debate itself. The argument at hand speaks directly to the culture behind the sneaker. The object of my timeline is the Air Jordan Retro 11, and even though Michael Jordan has been retired from the National Basketball Association for a little over a decade, sales from his sneakers are just as high as they were while he was still playing; the reasons for this these sales are some of the same topics of debate highlighted in this article.

Before researching the Air Jordan Retro 11 for my timeline, I was under the misapprehension that Air Jordan sneakers were still popular because of the accomplishments of Michael Jordan, but this has proved to be far from the truth. The popularity of Air Jordan sneakers is where marketing, Jordan’s accomplishments, hip-hop, and urban culture all meet together. An understanding of material culture allows one to study these various components and put them together to create what is—the success of the Air Jordan Retro 11.

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