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No one who knows me would be surprised that I watch Maury, The Steve Wilkos Show, and Judge Mathis when I get to work from home. Well, a little surprise might arise from those who know me as Dr. Critical Media Studies, because I know full well that the exploitation of the guests on these shows functions to control them, the live studio audience, and television viewers. In other words, the guests serve as reminders of how not to behave, how not to dress, how not to talk. As Laurie J. Oullette points out, these shows are “steeped in the unacknowledged politics of gender, class, and race,” vilifying “risky deviants and self-made victims who create their own misfortunes by making the ‘wrong’ choices and failing to manage their lives properly.” As follows, viewers are invited to pity or mock guests—like men who have multiple children with multiple women or women who enjoy sex work—even during commercial breaks. Along these lines, this article examines how International Career Development Center (ICDC College or ICDC) commercials manipulate hip hop culture in order to advance white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism in the name of Black “progress,” especially those featuring rappers and hip hop entrepreneurs Percy “Master P” Miller and his son Romeo. More specifically, I conduct an intersectional analysis (focusing on race, gender, and class) of their commercial entitled “ICDC College: Successful vs Slacker! Which one are you?”
Despite their catchy jingles, I become incensed by these and other commercials advertising educational institutions like Everest College because of what we know about the dangers of for-profit colleges and universities. As Alia Wong notes, “Some of the industry’s biggest players have made headlines in recent years for their poor performance, exorbitant pricing, and exploitation of vulnerable, low-income students.” Further, as Antonio Gramsci claims, hegemonic (ruling or dominant) mass media “are tools that ruling elites use to perpetuate their power, wealth, and status by popularizing their own philosophy, culture, and morality” (40). And the popularity of these commercials, hence their power, is undeniable.
One way to gauge this power is to consider ratings and demographics, which also helps to explain why institutions like ICDC have a vested interest in capitalizing on the daytime TV viewing audience and why they often rely so heavily on hip hop tropes. According to Nielsen, the number of U.S. citizens watching daytime TV rose from 31.49 million in 2008 to 35.7 million in 2014. Additionally, the Pew Research Center report claims, “Regular viewers of daytime talk shows are less educated than the public as a whole. Among this group, just 19% have four year degrees, 26% have attended some college and 54% have a high school diploma or less education.” They also report, “Daytime talk show watchers stand out as the least well off regular audience. About half (51%) have family incomes of less than $30,000, while three-in-ten have $30,000-$74,999 incomes. Just 12% have incomes of $75,000 or more.” I would argue that this is also related to age, as Cary O’Dell claims that daytime TV shows maintain their contemporary popularity because they “skew younger,” targeting the 18-49 demographic. Similarly, the Media Behaviors & Influence Study reports almost two-thirds of the hip hop audience is between the ages of 18-34 and ranks last—compared to other audiences—in annual household income. Further, according to Radio and Television Business Report, the hip hop audience “skews very high” in students, military personnel, and unemployed individuals.
This is important considering the background of ICDC and its dependence on the Miller family’s fame. ICDC was founded in 1995 by Anna Berger and has campuses in Huntington Park and Van Nuys, along with a virtual campus online. Four years after its founding, ICDC earned accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a recognized accrediting agency by the U.S. Department of Education. It offers an Associate of Occupational Studies, as well as fast-track diplomas and certificates in Business Management, Physical Therapy Aide, and other areas. In 2011, ICDC created an international division that coincided with the emergence of Master P and Romeo as spokespeople. Master P is most famous for his success with No Limit Records, a company he founded in 1990. Romeo has also had notable mainstream success in popular culture, becoming the youngest person to achieve #1 on the Billboard 200 (a record previously held by Michael Jackson) and starring in an eponymous Nickelodeon series for three seasons. It stands to reason, then, that ICDC would consider these men beneficial to its goal of increasing enrollment for audiences who are intrigued by mainstream hip hop success.
However, “Successful vs Slacker!” employs white supremacy in order to reinforce the idea that hip hop—a culture still largely associated with youth of color, especially Black youth—is anti-education. Along these lines, “Successful” is written in typical Arial-style font, while “Slacker” is written in a font that resembles graffiti. Second, “Slacker” is dressed in clothes that are clearly reliant upon a stereotypical hip hop aesthetic—a backwards baseball cap, tank top, baggy yet skinny jeans, and sneakers. So, of course, he gets to be the fool juxtaposed with “Successful,” who is less-explicitly dressed like stereotypical hip hop. Despite the fact that Master P is also wearing a backwards baseball cap and a hoodie, the focus is clearly on “Slacker” and “Successful,” as ICDC tries to convince its audience that looking like “Slacker” is a barrier to success.
Additionally, the commercial is drenched in heteropatriarchy. For example, early on, “Successful” asks, “Do you know with just one call you can change your life?” At that point, “Slacker” chimes in, “Dude, that’s not gonna get you the girls!” “Successful” then snaps his fingers, and two relatively thin but curvy women wearing body-fitting dresses and high-heeled shoes appear at both his sides as he comments, “Actually, girls are into smart guys nowadays!” Master P then chuckles with pride, suggesting that attracting women is a worthy reason to attend college. First, I take issue with the assumption that audience members are heterosexual. Additionally, we should encourage young people to avoid pursuing their dreams and goals primarily because of the possibility that those pursuits will benefit their romantic relationships. Rather, we should focus on encouraging young people to figure out who they are and who they want to be, even if those goals are not inextricably linked to the pursuit of a college education. However, if ICDC is, in fact, a viable route to young people achieving their goals, it lost me by using women as bait.
Last, but not least, the commercial employs neoliberal capitalism in order to denigrate viewers that struggle financially. For instance, after “Slacker” claims that pursuing an education is “too expensive,” Master P responds, in disgust, “Pathetic!” However, it’s not “pathetic” for anyone to carefully consider the ever-rising costs of education, especially when the College Board reports that “the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015–2016 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.” Cost is a real concern that should be seriously addressed, especially by an institution that claims to care about education. Further, despite “Success” telling “Slacker” about ICDC’s financial aid packages, job placement programs, the laptops it provides for students, and other resources the institution provides, he, of course, doesn’t mention any of the financial challenges that college graduates face. As Gillian B. White points out, “Millions of America’s young people are really struggling financially. Around 30 percent are living with their parents, and many others are coping with stagnant wages, underemployment, and sky-high rent. And then there are those who are doing just great—owning a house, buying a car, and consistently putting money away for retirement. These, however, are not your run-of-the-mill Millennials. Nope. These Millennials have something very special: rich parents.” Rather, ICDC takes the neoliberal, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach, dismissing the multilayered and multidirectional challenges that confront individuals who want to pursue a college education.
Further, it’s hard to take the Millers seriously as spokespeople when neither attended ICDC. In fact, Romeo earned a great deal of media attention when he was granted a full scholarship to play basketball at the University of Southern California before leaving two years later to focus on his entertainment career full-time (and I’m not begrudging the latter). Similarly, Romeo can afford to turn his nose up at “Slacker” and others like him, as rumor has it he has an estimated net worth of $5 million and that Master P’s estimated net worth is $250 million. And even though the latter has a notable “started from the bottom” story—growing up in the Calliope Projects in New Orleans—he did inherit $10k after his grandfather’s death, which he used to open the No Limit Records record store in California that eventually became the foundation for his company. We must question, then, the implications of ICDC capitalizing on the Millers’ relationship with and influence on hip hop culture at the expense of providing necessarily critical information about college and education. And please don’t get me started on how these constructions impact audiences that don’t know and love and hip hop. Seriously. Please.
The possible good news is that earlier this month, Goodbye Loans reported that ICDC may be secretly closing, as its website (which wasn’t technologically safe enough to visit) supposedly claims, “WE ARE NO LONGER ACCEPTING NEW APPLICATIONS FOR ENROLLMENT.” That explains why I haven’t seen their commercials during my daytime guilty pleasures for a while. Still, while ICDC was able to secure the most famous representatives for their arm of the for-profit education cause, helping them do damage for over 20 years, they aren’t the only perpetrator. National American University (NAU), for example, has spent the past 75 years telling us, “Get your degree! Set yourself free!” But according to former NAU student Diane Leef, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, she claims, “We’re just dollars to them.” This kind of exploitation starts, in part, with vicious and aggressive advertising tactics like those I’ve examined here. Hence, even though ICDC College may likely be closing, we must not allow the others to continue manipulating audiences and perverting marginalized people and communities in the name of profit.
Heidi R. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College and an Associate Editor for The Feminist Wire whose work primarily focuses on Feminist Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Media Studies. Her essay “An Examination of the Kanye West’s Higher Education Trilogy” was published in The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, and her article “Let Me Just Taste You: Li’l Wayne and Rap’s Politics of Cunnlingus“ was published in The Journal of Popular Culture. She is also the author of forthcoming articles that examine FX’s The Shield, constructions of white police on the FX Network, VH1’s Love & Hip Hop franchise, Rihanna’s “Pour It Up,” and Bravo’s Married to Medicine. She has given talks at Kim Bevill‘s Gender and the Brain Conference, the Educating Children of Color Summit, the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, the Gender and Media Spring Convocation at Ohio University, and the Conference for Pre-Tenure Women at Purdue University, where she earned a Ph.D. in American Studies (2011) and a Certificate in Women’s Studies (2008). She has also been a contributor to Mark Anthony Neal’s NewBlackMan, NPR’s “Here and Now,” KOAA news in Colorado Springs, and KRCC radio (the Southeastern Colorado NPR affiliate), Bitch Media, Racialicious, and Act Out. Heidi and her husband, Antonio, live in Colorado Springs with their two children, AJ and Chase, and their cat Max. Learn more by following Heidi on Twitter at @therealphdmommy and by visiting her FemGeniuses website.