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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Offensive ads are no laughing matter

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This week I stumbled upon a particularly disturbing piece of advertising. No, I’m not talking about the ill-conceived Dove ad that circulated around social media. I’m referring to an ad placed by Flock Realty in a recent issue of Urban Times, a family-owned news tabloid that includes news from more than a dozen downtown Indianapolis neighborhoods. 

A picture of the ad landed in my Facebook newsfeed and I, like many others, thought it was a joke or a hoax.

The full-page ad says in large letters: “The real estate prophets said build here so the people came and they built and all was good in the kingdom.” Among the text are two photos of the area formerly known as Dodge City, which is now known as Fall Creek Place, a neighborhood that has undergone some demographic and socioeconomic changes over the past few years. One image displays a vacant plot of land with Flock signs staked in the ground, and it’s juxtaposed with another showing a row of nearly complete Flock homes.

Further down the page, the ad, which reads like some sort of strange fairytale, describes the neighborhood as a place formerly filled with “unholy habitats and vice lords” that, thanks to “bureaucrats and rebranding Oracles,” is now a “kingdom” that includes Goose the Market and a gourmet grocer. According to the tale, the area is now “holy,” “hip and upscale,” and “peace and prosperity reign.” If you’re one of the lucky folks to get one of four homes left, you’ll be shelling out at least $636,000 for your divine digs.

To be frank, the ad agitated me, as I saw the “G word” (gentrification) all over it. I read the social media comments, and many others had the same reaction. I reached out to the owners of Flock Realty to get an understanding of how the ad originated. I spoke with Kurt Flock, who runs the company with his wife, Kate. Flock said the ad was of his own design and creation. “I take full ownership and responsibility,” he said. When I asked what his intent was, he explained that he doesn’t run typical realty ads and likes to do things differently, with more humor.

Flock said he’d shared the ad with a couple people from the neighborhood who had bought homes from him, because he wanted to ensure he wasn’t casting the area in a negative light. “One girl was like, ‘LMAO,’ she laughed, she thought it was really funny,” he said. I asked him if any of the people he shared the ad with happened to be people of color. He said no and added that it hadn’t occurred to him that the ad has racial overtones. I found that puzzling given that, until recent developments, the area was largely inhabited by Black people.

I reached out to Keith Paschall, a local artist and community worker who was one of the first people to bring attention to the advertisement. Paschall said via email: “Even though Flock Realty’s ad was racist and offensive it accurately described the collusion between banks, brokers and bureaucrats to remove the poor from these neighborhoods and colonize under the guise of improving the quality of life by using grants, loans, tax credits and taxpayer money to kickstart the process. This is something city officials and local nonprofit institutions deny happened, yet Flock Realty’s ad perfectly describes what the rest of us have been complaining about for years. … I feel that the only way we’re going to stop this from happening to more Indianapolis neighborhoods is for the city officials and nonprofits tasked with helping communities (to) acknowledge what’s happened and start working to make changes with the process.”

Flock said he isn’t out to make trouble and ran down a list of the things he and his wife have done to try and improve the area, including serving on boards and task forces and giving monetary donations to local organizations. He switched gears a bit and began talking a bit more broadly about the unfortunate divisiveness and vitriol on display throughout the nation. “I wasn’t aware that our little ad in this little neighborhood paper would get drawn into all of that in the way that it has. It certainly wasn’t intended to,” he said.

Toward the end of our talk, he asked me what my personal thoughts were. “To be completely honest,” I said, “it was in poor taste and I didn’t see the joke in it.” I told Flock there was a way to display the growth of the area without making it look like a hell hole. I remarked that I wondered what the people who lived there before the Flocks came in felt about their neighborhood being referred to that way.

He apologized and shared his reality of having lived in that neighborhood himself. “I pulled bullets out of my roof. … I had gunfire going off in my front yard. To survive down here you have to have a sense of humor, and we probably pushed the envelope a little too far.”

After our talk, Flock sent me a few emails, one with other ads he’s run in the past to give me an understanding of his marketing methodology, and another where he recounted a visit he’d had that afternoon from a Black man whom he’d hired as a teenager.

I suppose the latter was to further illustrate the point that he is a good person and not a bigot. That may very well be true, but herein lies the issue: Bigots are not the only people who make poor choices when it comes to matters like this. “Good” white people who do all the “right things” are not excluded from being wrong, tone deaf and offensive. This is a perfect example. The time for white people to understand this is way overdue. 


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