Thursday, March 20, 2008

Take Two on Irresponsibility

After reading my colleague Katherine Field’s blog on a mall’s responsibility to assume a more authoritative role in what happens in its stores, my first reaction was, “No, it is the retailers who are responsible for the merchandise they sell.”

Then I walked through a recently opened XXI store with my 16-year-old daughter this weekend. Blaring throughout the store was a rapper repeatedly swearing a vulgarity that if I were to write it in this blog I’d be out of work tomorrow. Suffice it to say, the first word was “mother” and the second was unprintable.

Like Katherine, I’m not a prudish mom—but that was tasteless. Frankly, if the words have to be bleeped out of the song when it is played on the radio, what business does a retailer have blasting it on the store’s airwaves?

What was interesting was my daughter’s reaction—definitely an artsy, edgy kind of teen, even she raised her eyebrows over the choice of in-store music. “Honestly, Mom,” she told me, “I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I’d been shopping with my friends—but shopping with you, yeah it was harsh.”

So I asked her, given that she’s the age demographic XXI is looking for, should they be allowed to play that music? Her answer: “It depends on who they are targeting, like radio stations play those songs all the time and may get fined for the swearing, but it’s worth it if they get more listeners. Personally, I didn’t like the store because it was so hard to find things and I didn’t like the music.”

I’m still of the opinion that it’s the retailer, not the property owner, who has responsibility for what is presented inside the store. However, perhaps malls should borrow the film industry’s rating system and post G, PG or R beside store names on the mall directory. Of course, that would spawn endless debate and probably create more confusion than clarity for shoppers. (I’m reminded of the mothers who protested the “obscene” T-shirts sold in department stores…basically if it’s not Build-A-Bear Workshop, most stores would probably earn an R rating.)

Ultimately, I think it is the consumer’s choice what they buy, and the retailer’s choice what they sell. The gray area for me is the public environment—if stores are operating in a family-focused shopping center, then both retailers and property owners have a responsibility to keep the visual and auditory environment free of vulgarities. That would include swearing, sexually explicit language, pornography, graphic violence and any images that promote derogatory feelings toward a group of people.

—Connie Gentry

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