The other night I was a watching a replay of Game 6 of the Yankees-Braves 1996 World Series. Something wasn't right. As a lifelong Yankee fan, I knew everything that was going to happen, especially in that classic third inning -- O'Neil doubles, Gerardi triples him home, Jeter and Bernie follow with singles -- yet I found myself unusually engaged, as if I were watching the game live. But strangely, I also felt more relaxed. The stadium seemed calmer despite the fans going bonkers.
It didn't take long to realize the cause - or, rather, the non-cause -- of these odd sensations. Behind the batter was nothing but a blue wall and fans. No enormous WB Mason or Burger King banners blared at me from back there; no red-white-and-blue Bank of America signs wallpapered the dugout; no New Era Cap stickers plastered the railings; and there were only a handful of billboards scattered about the stadium. Moreover, when the score was displayed it was just a score, not a score "Presented by..." some corporation. There were no "Gatorade updates" or "Listerine timeouts," no "Bridgestone" pop ups blocking my view of something. In other words, there was nothing competing with the game for my attention.
This got me thinking about advertising in other sports and how it has grown like an unruly monster. Just about every stadium these days is named after a corporation. There are far more ads decorating pro basketball courts now then there were just a few years ago. Same with hockey rinks. And football, well, football has been dominated by advertising for a while now.
NFL coaches are not allowed to wear suits on the sidelines anymore, only clothing with a Reebok -- the official clothing sponsor -- logo prominently displayed. In 2006, the New Orleans Saint's Reggie Bush was fined $10,000 for sporting Adidas cleats during a pre-season game. In last season's HBO reality show Hard Knocks, which follows a football team through training camp, the Cincinnati Bengals wore SpongeTech ads on their practice jerseys (apparently the Reebok deal doesn't cover practices). College football is even worse. It's not the Rose Bowl anymore, it's the Fed-Ex Rose Bowl; not the Sugar Bowl, but the Nokia Sugar Bowl -- with the corporate logos imprinted right on the playing fields.
But why the fuss? In a capitalist society like ours, advertising is necessary to alert consumers to products and services. True enough. And I'm not suggesting we do away with it. But I would argue that there is a limit to how much we should be forced to take. During a typical day, the average American views somewhere between 250 and 3,000 ads. (Estimates vary widely, probably based on where you live; city dwellers are exposed to many more ads than people in the country, for instance.) There's only one reason for their ubiquity: they work. Commercials get you to spend money, usually on things you don't need. And since America is only now beginning to emerge from its worst economic downturn in 75 years -- a recession whose underlying cause was people buying things they couldn't afford -- the time is nigh for a debate about the role of advertising.
Chew on these numbers. In 1944, the average American household possessed savings of $12,807 and an average debt of $7,475. That's over $5,000 in the black. Thirty years later, however, the average family's savings had dropped nearly by half and debt had more than tripled, putting the typical American family $32,000 in the red. Not so good. But look at what happened over the next 30 years. Average household debt by 2008 had skyrocketed to a whopping $117,951, with savings plummeting to a paltry $392 per year. Total credit card debt in the U.S. in 2008 was $975 billion, with the average household owing approximately $8,500 on four credit cards. So in 64 years, the typical American household went from having $5,000 in the bank to possessing four credit cards, $8,500 in credit card debt, nearly $120,000 in total debt, and little more than a car payment in savings.
Those numbers cannot continue on their current trend if America expects to retain a vibrant economy. But our profligate spending is not only taking a toll on our financial health, but also on our physical health. Look at our obesity epidemic, which has even struck children. How do you think that happened? Mass advertising of processed foods and electronic gadgets surely played a role. And then there is our skyrocketing use of prescription drugs, which jacks up healthcare costs and increases the risks of abuse. The United States is the only other country in the world besides New Zealand that allows prescription drug advertising on television.
But even beyond our financial and physical health, one could argue that our rampant consumerism has inflicted the most damage to our moral and spiritual health. Because when advertising is this universal, when the Rose Bowl is owned by Fed-Ex, when once-idealistic musicians use anti-bigotry anthems to sell trucks, when the names of great Americans are replaced on arenas with the names of corporations, we are hit with another, even more powerful message than the one in bold letters and flashing colors presented by the beautiful spokesmodel. It is this: nothing -- no single ideal or person -- is as important as the almighty dollar.
This amoral ethos threatens to devour our culture and undermine the very qualities that once defined what it meant to be a great American and a great human being; qualities like altruism, loyalty, creativity, generosity, and compassion. It also serves as a tacit agreement with the citizenry that it doesn't really matter how you amass your fortune, as long as you do. Even if that means selling bad mortgages to millions of brainwashed homebuyers. Or concocting a grand Ponzi scheme that puts your friends, your community and even charities at risk of financial ruin.
This has been cross-posted at www.guernicamag.com.