Friday, June 3, 2016

Malls: Do They Help or Hurt?

Like many seniors in high school, I had a job working retail the year before I entered college. Working in a mall gives you a new perspective into how walking around a mall might affect young people- especially girls. Malls are incredible tools for socialization because every store is tailored to a demographic they'd like to attract. When you go into a store you like and see the ads on the walls you now conveniently know what you should be excited about and how you should act. You like the clothes at Abercrombie? Shirtless guys must be your cup of tea. As well, the food court introduces people to radical advertisements and more socialization to boot. Just think back to the insulting ads by Burger King in the last few years. In addition, the people you see at the mall and how they act is a socializing agent as well! If a group walks by you as you shop alone you might make the judgment that it isn't "cool" to shop alone. Or, if you see a person who you want to look like going into a certain store or eating at a specific place in the food court, you might follow suit. Malls are full of potential agents of socialization. Just sit down on one of the benches and stare directly forward… you'll probably see an ad featuring some objective idea of what a woman should be or how she should act or how a man should treat a woman.


To find out more about media as an agent of socialization and how it is magnified by the concentration of "the need to please" at malls here in America I started to do some research. One of the fist things I found was a website that sold advertising methods (banners, stickers…) to malls. The first three I saw were no surprise to me. They were: stickers on elevator doors, large hanging banners and, stand alone advertisement holders. What surprised me most about this insight into mall advertising was that they were selling table-sized stickers to put on the tops of tables in the food court! As you ate you were forced to stare down some person trying to convince you to buy something! I thought this was atrocious! It seems to me that American teenagers are the victims of advertising far more than any human being should be. 

One important norm that mall socialization (through rampant media) conveys is what one should buy. The advertising industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars in America. The average young person in America is exposed to thousands of advertisements A DAY because of their distinct vulnerability to advertising and their need to be accepted. The advertised products are bought by the teens they target… in fact, over 100 BILLION dollars are spent by teens on these products. This clearly shows that teens are as vulnerable to smart advertising as we all assumed. Also, this displays that advertising companies are doing exactly what they set out to do- convince their specific demographic to buy what they tell them to buy. 

One rule exists in the mall that is clearly unspoken but is shoved in your face in every window and advertisement you see while you walk through the bright, iridescent hallways of the average American Mall. Before you go to mall you must make sure you set out with this in mind. Rule #1 is… don't get in the way! As I researched online and thought of my own experiences in malls (to hearken back to my introduction: I worked at a mall my senior year but, it wasn't just any mall because it was 30 minutes south of Washington D.C. where tour buses often stopped to show foreigners a real-life case study of American Life. My mall was BUSY!) I remember the pain of trying to pass someone up in the mall hallway or being behind the slowest person in the whole town at the check out table of the store I was currently frequenting. Nothing (well, maybe I’m generalizing) is more frustrating than being so close to getting out or buying your food/shirt/accessory and having to wait for what seems like hours for the person in front of you to get their act together. A Buzzfeed article I read had a list of things you never do and the majority of that list had to do with not prohibiting someone else from functioning properly. You don't stand on the escalator on the wrong side. You don't answer a phone call when you're next in line to buy your item. You don't walk at a turtle's pace if someone is behind you in the hallway on their way out of the mall or on their way to the next store. 

In addition, there is an expectation in malls that are furthered by advertisements themselves. You are expected to buy something. That seems simple enough but is much more subtle than you would think. As a teen, it is common to go to the mall without the explicit design of purchasing something. It is fun just to get out of the house without parents and to do something (ANYTHING!) But, what happens when you walk in and are bombarded with ads and coupons and spritzes of perfume? How do you resist when a clever ad tells you to buy something. But, they don't just tell you that they want you to buy it. They tell you that you want to buy it yourself. They get inside your head. You'll have muscular, shirtless men falling all over you if you buy this shirt. You'll be popular and liked if you shop here. You'll be happy… you'll be smarter… you'll be… a victim of consumerism in the end. 

So, it has been established that malls are shark tanks where the advertising world is the shark and the extra vulnerable teens are the minnows. But, why does it all matter? Why would we even bother with the fact that malls are places that socialize in a way that preys on young people’s minds? I mean, it seems bad and all but, really? What is the problem? The problem is that this socialization promotes gender inequality. That might seem like a stretch but when was the last time you googled women in the media? I googled that exact phrase to inform myself about what it meant to be portrayed in the media nowadays. 16% of the women in the screenshot I have provided below are women who are prominent in progressive and positive movements for women (Michelle Obama and her healthy eating initiative and the young Muslim on the cover of TIME’s 100 most influential people.) One third of the women in the same screenshot were pictured in swimsuits. 41% of the picture included in the screenshot featured the words pretty, sexy or, sex. Not one of the pictures included a man and one ad specifically spoke to men and said women were lying to them. 

In conclusion, the mall is where we go to get sexualized and taken advantage of by the media and by the men who (knowingly or unknowingly consume that media.) 


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