It seems to be one of those things that everyone accepts as inevitable and ubiquitous. It’s another reason why I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Each time I see advertising encroach on yet a new area of life, I feel again like I wasn’t meant to be here.
I don’t know how old I was when I first realised this. I used to watch my friend and her sister play Little League baseball, and every fence was covered with a banner ad. They detracted from the sunny skies, surrounding trees, and comforting air of settling evening. At least they did have a small-town feel — Al’s Auto Parts, Surf Pizzeria.
It hit home more when I was still interested in what seemed to be such simple things as the Rose Bowl Parade, the Orange Bowl game, etc. One day, I woke up, and it was something like the Sunkist Orange Bowl. (Today, we don’t even have anything that relevant — it’s the Nokia Sugar Bowl, the FedEx Orange Bowl. College football, which must earn revenues in the millions if not billions through attendance, television, and sweatshirt sales, had decided it couldn’t scrape by without corporate sponsorships. Now I wonder how many of us do remember when bowl games were simply the Cotton Bowl and SBC were just three letters of the alphabet. Not only does no one remember, corporate sponsorships have become so common that no one cares. If I mentioned this to anyone, I’m sure they would look at me like I was being my weird INFP self again and say, “What’s the big deal?” After all, these are people used to see irreplaceable fossil fuel wasted on airplanes flying over baseball games touting local radio stations.
Then, in what seemed an advertising-related move, the Olympics, an ancient tradition of amateur sports, convinced itself that it was okay for professional athletes earning millions of dollars to compete. It robbed the Olympics of its spirit, suspense, and glory. Now it is another schlock sports event, right up there with pro wrestling — loud, blaring, brightly lit, and utterly lacking in any interest. I just don’t care whether these pros win a medal or whether our pros are better than the Russian pros. I haven’t watched the Olympics since the early 1980s. And from the reports I’ve read, I haven’t missed anything other than bickering and lots and lots of advertising — skiers with clothes covered in sponsor logos and athletes prominently gulping Gatorade while the cameras are on them.
TV shows became noticeably shorter — so much so that whole scenes needed to be cut from Star Trek original episodes for syndication. When I saw them again in their entirety, I discovered how much was missing — and how easy it was not to notice because, after all, one expects 15 minutes of advertising every hour.
I got cable television rather later than most (this was an issue in Chicago). I had always thought that, because you were paying a monthly fee for cable, there would be no advertising. Wrong. There’s no advertising (just promotions) on the “premium” channels that you pay even more for. But there are as many or even more commercials on basic cable (for which you also pay) than there were on vanilla network TV. On some shows, ads break in every five or so minutes.
Then, at the grocery store, in my case, a local coop, i.e., not a chain, coupon dispensers began appearing. How tempting to buy the cereal for which a coupon is handy rather than the one you actually wanted. Lately, they’ve been putting colorful commercial appliqués on the tile floor. After all, you shouldn’t be allowed to look down without receiving a message.
Of course, there’s the Internet. Web hosts tout themselves as “free” — as long as you agree to (a) hitting your visitors with annoying popup and banner advertising and (b) signing over your rights to the content. And, of course, these hosts, like Yahoo!/Geocities (or was it Geocities/Yahoo!) have millions of happy customers who don’t perceive having ads forced down their visitors’ throat as “paying.” You can get a “free” version of Eudora, as long as you are willing to watch “small” ads. Most people who opt for this don’t see viewing ads as “paying.” I guess I do. For me, it’s paying too high a price — and encouraging more of the same.
I haven’t gone to the movies lately, but I learned a month ago that you can buy advertising space at the local cinema before the previews begin. A captive audience, each of whom has paid perhaps $8 for the privilege, is forced to sit through an array of ads before they can see what they really came for. I asked a friend about it, and she said she and her husband resent it. But what can you do?
Then, a few weeks ago, I got on the elevator at work to be confronted by a little screen that displays, in color, news clips, market ups and downs, weather, etc. — again, to a captive audience that has few other ways to get to the 37th floor. This must have been our building management’s brilliant idea — I wonder what their take of the action is? It’s hard to avert your eyes (although they did conveniently place them at an average man’s eye level rather than a compromise between an average man’s and an average woman’s — perhaps a telling circumstance itself. The thing itself is run by a company called Captivate.com. “In the elevator and on the Web.” News, Features, Shopping, Services. You can guess which is the most important.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I rarely pay attention to ads. The last one that sticks in my mind was for Nestle’s white chocolate, which featured a surreal Maxfield Parrish-like setting and a Eurythmics-style jingle, “Sweet dreams you can’t resist.” I suspect most people do pay more attention, especially children and teenagers; after all, what kid hasn’t hankered after Nikes or Reeboks or Calvin Kleins, not based on quality, functionality, price, or other worthwhile factors, but based only on the “name.” Not name as in a history of value, like, say, John Deere to a farmer, but “name” as in, “That’s what cool people like Michael Jordan wears.” You don’t have to produce a good product any more — you just have to be savvy about marketing it. There’s no doubt we could sell coal to Newcastle. And this isn’t something I’m proud of.
Meanwhile, you won’t find Captivate.com on my computer; you will find all commercial mail tossed unopened into my trash. I am trying to clean up my act to become a commercial-free zone.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
And, yes, I am once again yearning for simpler times. When you could watch a bowl game without having “FedEx” pounded into your brain.
Welcome to the American way. Propaganda through advertising. Sheer brilliance.
This diary entry brought to you by the letters D and S and the numbers 4 and 0.