Not A Good Neighbo(u)r: Why Mister Rogers’ Theme Song Doesn’t Belong in Target Ads

The US chain store Target, which will be operating in Canada as of next month, is starting its Canadian ad campaign during the 2013 Academy Awards broadcast. This week, Target announced that the music for the ads will be a cover version of Won’t You Be My Neighbor – the theme song from the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired on the PBS network from 1968 to 2001.

According to this story in the Globe and Mail, the Target ad campaign is the first time that the Fred Rogers Company, which holds the rights to Rogers’ works, has licensed a commercial use of the theme song.

“When we were first approached by Target, we immediately felt very comfortable with the respect they had for Fred and his legacy. That is paramount to us,” said William Isler, president of Fred Rogers Co.

Fred Rogers himself never did any product endorsements, and in 1984 actually got Burger King to stop airing an ad featuring a parody of his television character, because he was receiving complaints from parents who thought he had sold out. I recall reading that Rogers also was reluctant to license merchandise related to his show. While other PBS shows such as Sesame Street were making huge amounts of money by licensing toys and other products, Rogers thought that commercializing his show would unjustly exploit his special relationship with his young viewers.

Would Mister Rogers have allowed Target into his neighborhood? (credit: wikipedia.com)

Would Mister Rogers have allowed Target into his neighborhood? (credit: wikipedia.com)

I grew up watching Mister Rogers, and I remember him talking very sincerely and honestly about respect, and kindness, and compassion. So I’m trying to wrap my head around why the Fred Rogers Company would want to license his music to Target – a company that has not acted with much respect or kindness or compassion toward workers in Canada.

When Target took over the majority of stores in the Zellers chain in Canada – which included 15 unionized stores – it refused to guarantee employment at Target to the Zellers workers, instead making vague promises about giving them some kind of preference in the Target hiring process. As the union representing the Zellers employees pointed out, this meant that in some cases Zellers workers with over 30 years of service, if they got hired at Target, would be making entry-level wages.

Target’s arrival was also the subject of a successorship complaint in British Columbia. The United Food and Commercial Workers argued that since Target was operating the same kind of business as Zellers and in the same physical location, the union’s collective agreement with Zellers should continue with Target. In December, the BC Labour Relations Board ruled in favour of Target, on the basis that Target only acquired Zellers’ real estate and not its business. Target has made it clear that it doesn’t consider itself bound by any of the collective agreements at the Zellers stores it is taking over.

Target in the United States has been accused of a number of employment law violations and is a notoriously anti-union employer – with actions including, among other things, producing an infamous anti-union video (my colleague David Doorey’s excellent analysis of that video is here).

To me, Target’s anti-worker actions in Canada do not fit with Mister Rogers’ values of compassion and kindness and respect. It makes me sad that the Fred Rogers Company has chosen to license Mister Rogers’ music at all, but it makes me even sadder that his music has been licensed to a company with such a poor record of employee treatment as Target. And I think if Mister Rogers knew about this, he would be sad too.

 

RELATED POSTS: Another blogger has written a wonderful post on this same subject.

Here is an interesting perspective from a professional jingle writer.

And the UFCW now claims that Target has hired less than 1% of the Zellers workforce, in addition to outsourcing unionized cleaning jobs to non-union companies.

12 comments

  1. The first time I saw the ad, I was filled with rage. There’s no other way to put it, Fred Rogers would have done whatever it took to prevent this from happening, and I’m hoping that his family, friends and former associates are doing whatever they can to make sure the company that is supposedly acting in his name doesn’t try to pull this bulls#$t again.

    On the other hand, there was some Mister Rogers Neighbourhood merchandise, in the form of books and at least two LPs, but those were released with Fred Rogers’ full participation and approval, and were fully in line with the messages of his show. As much as I’d love to have a Lady Elaine Fairchild action figure, I’m glad Fred stuck to his guns.

    1. I just saw the ad for the first time tonight, and I had the same reaction. Mr. Rogers would be rolling over in his grave. This has GUARANTEED I will never shop at Target.

  2. I see you can get T-shirts, a trolley toy and a trolley soup mug, among other things, at the Fred Rogers website (and they’re not ridiculously overpriced), but the bulk of what they sell is educational in nature. They do sponsor a lot of programs, although the site doesn’t say specifically if the proceeds from merchandise goes back into their charitable work, but one would assume that the sales help support it.

    You can email info@fredrogers.org for all the good that will do.

  3. i wouldnt shop at target or walmart they are both garbage to their workers.i shop canadian and thats loblaws and supertore or sobeys for my groceries and everything else at other proper retailors that are good to their employees with pay and benefits and respect.

  4. Count me as another person who now feels a curious surge of rage every time I see a Target or one of their ads – even just print ads. Even if they were a great, ethical company, they would not have the (moral) right to use this song. They are a US corporation; they are not my neighbour, wherever they set up shop, not for a long time yet. Maybe, years from now, after building roots in the community and showing themselves to be good people, people who really could be trusted (which they apparently are not), I might have been able to forgive them for attempting to lay claim to a legacy of inspiration and integrity they have never earned. As it is, I fully intend for my grandchildren to be boycotting this store.

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