Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama, Cosby and Kmart

On the Saturday after Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States, The New York Times ran an article in its Arts & Leisure section entitled, “Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby.”

The premise of the article was that the depiction of the Huxtable family on Cosby's show, which began in 1984 and runs even today in syndication—paved the way for public acceptance of an Afro-American as a leadership figure. The article pointed out that even Karl Rove, the magna-GOP strategist, said on election night on Fox News, “We’ve had an African-American first family for many years in different forms. When “The Cosby Show” was on, that was America’s family. It wasn’t a black family. It was America’s family.”

Cosby, no doubt, influenced public perception. So did other TV shows and movies that put minorities and women in the Oval Office. Pop culture, in other words, makes it easier for breakthroughs to occur.

Sometimes, however, pop culture stands in the way of transformation.

Take Kmart. No matter what Kmart has done over the last quarter-century, it has been unable to shed its image as the “polyester palace,” the home of the “Blue Light Special.” Kmart recently has even tried to capitalize on the blue light heritage, but to little success.

I believe Kmart’s image problem can be traced to its rapid ascendancy by the early 1970s as the first, and at the time only, national discount store chain. Back then, when TV and movie writers and comedians needed a national frame of reference for their scripts and jokes, Kmart was there for the punch line and context in the ’70s and well into the ’80s. Since many of today’s writers and comedians were growing up in those decades, there has been a carryover effect, even as Wal-Mart vastly outpaced Kmart as the largest retailer in the country. Remember, back then Wal-Mart was not yet a national chain and was an unknown entity to most people growing up along the Eastern and Western seaboards. Only Kmart had imprinted itself on the national landscape and psyche.

Think about the 1988 movie “Rain Man.” Where did the character played by Dustin Hoffman want to go to buy his underwear? Kmart was the running joke throughout the movie.

Wal-Mart’s reputation is by no means pure, given the many lawsuits filed against it for alleged labor violations, its impact on communities where it opens and closes stores, its import policy—its sheer SIZE.

But for now, Kmart has retained its identity as the national butt of humor and low-end retailing.

For Barack Obama, the media helped create a climate of change. For Kmart, the stigma of the past remains just one of the obstacles in its path to transformation.

By Murray Forseter

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