Pedestrians in Chinatown are inundated with advertising and gimmicks, from free burritos to digital billboards. And joining the marketing blitz on a recent sweltering Saturday afternoon was a group of young black men handing out coupons — wearing orange prison jumpsuits.
They were employees of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment. Some passersby politely took the coupons; most ignored or avoided them. But given the stereotypes associated with black men and crime, others took offense at the sight of black men being hired to wear the jumpsuits.
“It’s got kind of a rough edge to it,” said Wes Brown of D.C., who first saw the men last year. He said they’re dressed “like criminals” and “people see them and probably think that.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Brown, who is black, said.
Some walking by don’t make the connection until asked. On Saturday, Zkia White walked by the coupon distributors without noticing them, but when asked if it was a good idea for museum employees to wear the jumpsuits, she responded: “hell no.”
“They should know better. They shouldn’t be doing this,” White said. “But they’ll do whatever gets ticket sales.”
Others have taken notice of this questionable practice. And some may remember that this museum got some heat in February for a Valentine’s Day promotion that linked romance to “crimes of passion.” The exhibit featured domestic violence cases.
Employees have worn the outfits for three years. Although most of those handing out coupons in Chinatown were black men, all employees are required to wear prison jumpsuits when they engage in promotional activities, community activities or sales calls, wrote Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer, in an email to DCentric.
“We did not discriminate on race, religion nor sex [when hiring]. So we have a mix of everyone,” she writes.
The museum hosted an open house to hire street team members, and most of the applicants happened to have been African-American men, Vaccarello writes.
Vaccarello writes that the museum has received “a few” complaints about the jumpsuits, “but we have more positive feedback by a landslide. Most tourists love it and ask to pose in pictures with them.”
Some do see the advertising as harmless. Joan, a tourist from California who declined to give her last name, said, “I see it as another promotion and maybe a way for them to get ticket sales.”
A white family from Northern Illinois walked past one museum employee on Saturday. He handed a coupon to teenager Anna Green.
Her grandmother, Jan True, thought the employees were prisoners: “I didn’t even see the fliers.”
Green thought so, too – until she saw the fliers. Her younger sister said she was “scared” when she saw them.
Sonya Grier, an American University marketing professor who also studies race and sociology, said although a company has a right to have such a campaign, but “some people may consider it unethical, insensitive or just in bad taste.”
Such campaigns work by relying on associations already in people’s minds — in this case, orange jumpsuits have a strong connection to jails, and thus, crime and punishment, Grier said. “At a theoretical level, it’s basic marketing.”
But social context has an influence on the way such campaigns are perceived, leading to “some unintended consequences” — particularly since there’s been quite a bit of research showing many people believe black men are more likely to commit crimes, she added. Marketing can reinforce that stereotype.
“One of the main ways we learn about society and life in general is through the media,” Grier said. In this case “it’s not an ad. It’s real life people, and I think that takes it up a notch,” she added.
Vaccarello defended the museum’s uniforms: “We definitely are an organization that is active in our community and we do not want to offend anyone. But this is our uniform and has been since opening. Our employees like it, tourists like it, and many local businesses like it,” she writes.
Indeed, one group that isn’t complaining is the museum employees themselves, according to Vaccarello. She writes, “We listen to our team — and they like wearing them.” (DCentric asked permission to interview some employees and is awaiting a response).
She recounts one time in which a few employees tried an experiment: would there be a difference in sales if they wore red museum T-shirts instead of the jumpsuits?
Vaccarello concludes: “Their sales dramatically decreased — proving that what they wear matters.”