I first noticed the change in my friend Ed (The Sparkman) Grandville two months ago. He seemed to be dressing differently, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
Finally, while changing in the locker room after a weekend game of basketball, I was unable to take it anymore and asked him. A grin filled the Sparkman's face. "Labels," he said. "I'm not wearing labels anymore," and then he proudly pointed to his clothes. "See? No Calvin Klein jeans, no Nike Airs, no Lacoste sportshirt, no Bud Light baseball cap. I've given them up."
And so he had. It was plain to see -- as plain as the white t-shirt he was now wearing. Usually, the Sparkman wore one that read, "Chevy, the Heartbeat of America," with a valentine-shaped heart over where his own real one was supposed to be. And his former gym trunks with the Chicago Bulls logo on them now only had a simple blue stripe down the side.
"So, what happened, Sparkman?" I asked.
"It happened while I was watching the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl," my friend told me, "and they had just presented the Miller Lite Player of the Game. I suddenly realized that we were all part of one of the biggest scams Mankind has known. I realized that we are actually paying for other people's advertising. And I wouldn't be a party to it anymore. If they want me to advertise their products, they can pay me to do it, just like they pay television and magazines. That's when I came up with my great idea."
He was very excited now and started pacing around the room, looking as if he were ready to burst.
"I'm putting myself up for corporate sponsorship." He walked up close to me. "I sent out letters two weeks ago."
"Sparkman," I told him, "you're loopy."
"Have you ever watched an auto race?" he asked, gently putting his arm around me, like an older brother explaining the world to an innocent sibling. "Those cars are nothing more than traveling billboards -- and the drivers are worse. They have so many patches on their uniforms, they look like they've been quilted together. But the thing is, they're getting paid for it. That's the beauty of it. It's just like those people who used to wear sandwich boards to advertise someone's business. Only today, they've turned it into an art form.
"And," he added, as we left the gym and walked up the path to the parking lot, "don't call me 'Sparkman' anymore."
My friend's remark caught me off guard, and what's more, I didn't see the connection. "I've always called you that."
"If somebody wants me to use a nickname," he said, "they can pay me for it. That's what personal corporate sponsorship is about. For instance, I'm trying to set up a deal with AC Delco. It's the perfect match. I'd be known as Genuine GM Parts Ed (the Sparkman) Grandville. Every time I signed my named, that's what I'd put down. I'd have it on my stationery, my checks, everything."
It's an unorthodox way for a corporation to advertise, I reminded him, wondering if he was prepared to be turned down.
"There are always other companies," he cheerfully responded. "If I have to, I'll go to AC Delco instead. And if that doesn't work out, there doesn't have to be a connection. Look at the FedEx Cup in golf. Does that make any sense? I'll sign with anybody."
Ed's passion was growing. "Don't you understand? Everything is for sale. A bank once bought corporate sponsorship of the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, so the place had to be called the Great Western Fabulous Forum, or the Fabulous Great Western Forum, or whatever. It's no big deal. What about Minute Maid Park in Houston, Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, or U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. For goodness sake, in the NHL, the Mighty Ducks were named for a kiddie movie. It's all sizzle."
I began to look at my friend in a new light. "You really are serious about all this, aren't you, Ed?" It was difficult getting used to not calling him Sparkman. But then, it would be a good deal harder getting used to calling him Genuine GM Parts Ed (the Sparkman) Grandville.
"I'll show you how serious I am," Ed said. He took me to his flat-bed truck, and on the back, where the name 'Honda' had once been, the letters were now painted over. "I was thinking of just covering the 'o,' "n" and 'd,'" he said, "leaving the word, 'Ha,' but people would be able to figure out the make, and I just don't want to take that chance."
A month later, I ran into my friend and asked him how the corporate sponsorship was going.
"To be honest," he admitted, "I've had a bit of trouble lining up national companies. I don't think I have enough pull yet. Although, a couple of places seemed to express interest. They told me to come back if I had luck with anyone else. I figured I'd try the local market and build from there."
I was still skeptical about Ed's idea, but the world needs its visionaries, and I wished him luck.
"Thanks," he said, "but you're a little late. I already signed up my first sponsor."
I'm certain my face registered its surprise. "That's great," I stammered. "That's very exciting. Congratulations, Ed."
"All Star Dry Cleaners Ed," he corrected me. "My card."
A leading expert on gratuitous promotion, Robert J. Elisberg's new comic novella, A Christmas Carol 2: The Return of Scrooge, has just been published and is available in paperback and ebook edition. This has been brought to you by Olive Garden. When you read the book, you're family.