This paper examines the impacts of athletic-apparel commercial messages on youth and youth cultures. Sneaker companies routinely use celebrity Black athletes, like Michael Jordan, to help position and market their premium brands. While concerns have been raised over the potential negative impacts of this practice, the processes through which athletic-apparel commercials become interpreted and assimilated into youth cultures have not been well-researched, A study is reported that used focus-group methodology and Radway’s (1991) concept of “interpretive communities” to examine how Black and non-Black male adolescents view sneaker commercials and celebrity Black athletes. This paper explores the ways that “cultural power” and “symbolic power” (Lull, 1995) are exercised by both the sneaker companies that feature celebrity Black athlete spokespersons and by the youth “communities” that consume these images. Overall, the youth in the study comprised two distinct interpretive communities defined by cultural differences related to their distinct social locations and racial identities.
Brian Wilson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University, Hamilton, ON LBS 4M4. Robert Sparks is with the Department of Human Kinetics at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport conference, held in Savannah, GA, November, 1994. Also, portions of this paper have been taken from an unpublished master’s thesis entitled Audience Reactions to the Portrayal of Blacks in Athletic Apparel Commercials, University of British Columbia, 1995.