Signs and Ads


I noticed this sign on the Orange Line last Tuesday:


The heading reads: “HOW TO GET FROM HERE.  TO HERE.”  On the left, there’s a well-worn pair of work boots; on the right, a shiny new pair of dress shoes.

The caption says: “Without educational credentials, there’s only so far you can go in your career.  Wentworth can give you the credentials you need to go from employee to boss.  Earn your degree or certificate and become the leader you’ve always wanted to be.”

On top right of the sign someone wrote: “Boots rule, you bourgeois pigs.”

When I saw the boots I thought “hard work; action; building things; getting things done.”  When I saw the dress shoes pitted against the boots, I thought “corporate office; oceans of email; long meetings; windows that don’t open.”

I assume the creators of the ad were counting on viewers to interpret the symbols differently: boots are supposed to represent a dead-end job, the drudgery of manual labor, a low salary, a lack of recognition.  Dress shoes, I suppose, are meant to indicate opportunity, sophistication, power, an advancing career.  Boots mean “worker,” and dress shoes mean “boss.”

By that reading, the ad insinuates a repugnant idea: that trade work is inferior to office work and that anyone wearing boots to their job should aspire to someday have the privilege of wearing dress shoes, a privilege so enviable that they might want to consider becoming indebted to Wentworth to obtain it.

Education should be a pathway to having greater choice and control in one’s work and life — I’ve experienced those benefits, and I think they should be available to everyone.  But dress shoes represent a very narrow-minded idea of success.  If Wentworth’s marketing department had used visual symbolism focused on choice and empowerment — if they had selected imagery that contrasts professional immobility with the increasing opportunity and self-directedness that can come with education, this might have been a decent ad.  Instead, Wentworth presents a view of education as what?  A credential shop?  A class elevator?  A place to change one’s fashion? I was glad to see that this sign received a bit of the graffiti it asks for.

2 thoughts on “Footwear

  1. I should begin by saying that my own reaction to the sign is similar to yours. At the same time, you and I are clearly not the intended recipients of the message. For that matter, neither is the worker who is basically satisfied with the job she has. Wentworth obviously is interested in appealing to the folks who *want* to move up. So the question then is whether there’s a way of speaking very directly to that person (required for the ad to be effective) without it feeling like Wentworth is denigrating manual labor?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I’m aware that you and I are not the ad’s target audience, and for that reason I debated whether I was a good choice of author for this post. I’ve spent most of my own professional life in offices; you could say it’s my own economic privilege that enables me to spend time considering the implications of this ad in the first place. But so be it – the ad was posted prominently in a public space, I saw it, and it didn’t sit right with me – I wanted to try to articulate why. As far as ads go, I do think it’s well designed: it’s simple, bold, and very likely to catch the attention of someone thinking about “moving up.” As I wrote, I’m all for “moving up,” if moving up means having more opportunity and mobility. But if moving up means looking down at trade work, or if it just means being the boss and having power over others, I’m not sure that’s an ideal to encourage. I agree, the question is how Wentworth could communicate directly with its audience without denigrating manual labor or reinforcing ideas of class hierarchy (“how to get from here to here”), and I wish they had taken on that challenge.

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