Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Adventures in the Vast Wasteland #41


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Fred Rogers works on the soundtrack for his neighbourhood.

My fellow Gunslingers,

As I mentioned in my Stompin' Tom Connors memorial, it is not my nature to go on at length in this realm, but I seem to be on a roll this week, and there was something else I wanted to bring to your attention.

I'm sure you're all familiar with the department store chain Target, a.k.a. "the upscale Wal-Mart." We Canadians have not been as privileged to host their brightly lit, goods-filled outlets, which is odd considering their logo is the same colour as our national flag, but that's about to change as Target commences taking over the retail spaces formerly filled by the now-defunct Canadian chain of Zellers.

To announce their arrival, they've been running TV ads featuring a perky young woman driving a motorcycle with a sidecar that's holding a pitbull painted with the store's logo. The soundtrack is a twee, alt-pop rendition of the theme to Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood. I'm not going to bother linking to it, if you're curious I'm sure you can find it on your own, but if you know anything about the late broadcaster (and Presbyterian minister) Fred Rogers, you'll know that he did his best to keep commerce and children's programming as far apart as possible during the time that he walked this earth in his comfy sneakers and cosy cardigan.

(It's also worth noting that Canada had a special place in Rogers' heart; he had his first hosting job on a show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from 1963 to 1967, and his good friend and eventual replacement, Ernie Coombs, went on to become the host of this country's most beloved children's show--with a similar approach and set of values--Mr. Dressup.)

I suppose you can't really blame Target, they wanted a tune that would deliver the message that they're just good neighbo(u)rs, and that we have nothing to fear from their cheaply made goods or restrictive labour practices. After all, Wal-Mart's been here for over a decade, and democracy hasn't come crashing down around our ears yet.

So, we look instead to the caretakers of Fred Rogers image and life's work, The Fred Rogers Company. If Mister Rogers was alive today, would he have okayed this? I think you know the answer. Given the amount of merchandise carried by Target in stores across North America and elsewhere, I'd say the odds are better than good that some of it was manufactured by children. Even if it was only one kid in some backwater plant in the depths of Thailand or Pakistan, we can safely say Fred Rogers would still be distressed by the thought of his name being associated with one lost childhood.

The organization that bears his name does good work, supporting children's education and counselling, and no doubt the fees from licensing its signature tune will further help them in those goals, but it's still wrong. I sent an email to info@fredrogers.org, like I'm sure many others who grew up with his program have done, and you can search online for more reasons why this is not only against the grain of what Fred Rogers stood for, but also a dangerous precedent for the use of his work.

Thanks for reading.
Dear guardians of the Fred Rogers legacy,

I won't turn this email into a diatribe or a knee-jerk response to something that made me upset, I get enough of those in my daily job as a newspaper writer and there's no reason to subject you to the same kind of vitriol, but I did want to add my name to the list of Mister Rogers fans who were dismayed to see and hear the use of his theme song in an ad for Target stores' arrival in Canada.

Like millions of others, I grew up with Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, and as I got older I came to understand more of what Fred Rogers stood for in terms of his respect for his audience, and his desire to keep commerce as far away from his message as possible. I remember his battle with Burger King to discontinue a series of ads featuring a Mister Rogers impersonator, and his distaste for advertising targeting young viewers.

I cannot see how, if he were alive today, Fred Rogers would have allowed the song that everyone associates with his strong values and unwavering integrity to be associated with a company that has little or no respect for workers' rights, in the name of selling cheap merchandise made by underpaid labourers in far-flung countries. It simply would not have happened.

I might have even shopped at Target, or at least looked inside its doors. Seeing those ads, no matter how cute the dog or how peppy the cover version, has guaranteed that will never happen.

I know there's no point in closing the barn door after the horse has gone, the ads have aired, the money has changed hands. But even if whatever royalties and licensing fees have gone to charitable works, Fred Rogers' message has been clouded by this incident, and I hope those who grew up learning from him and his words of peace, understanding and comfort have also taken the time to voice their disapproval. Fred would have listened, I hope you will too.

Your neighbour,

Stephen Cooke
Halifax, NS


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