Sunday, October 29, 2006

Our Cross-Promotion to Bear

Cross-promotion is a great, unacknowledged evil in our time.
I'm referring to the practice of using of one product to promote another unrelated product, usually because both share a corporate parent.

Some of you will remember an incident from a few years ago when this gargantuan beast, normally unnoticed by virtue of its very size and ubiquity, forgot itself and clumsily reared its ugly head (quite literally, read on) for all to see. I speak of course of when a television network, using the technology that enables the insertion of computer generated advertisements into the body of television broadcasts (allowing them to, for instance, change the ads on the home run wall each inning for the television audience) projected onto the backstop behind home plate—in a World Series game, mind you—none other than Ally McBeal. McBeal's startling, oversized visage loomed just over the shoulder of the batter, as if she were about to devour him right before our eyes and spit him back out as a made-over, queer-eyed, Oprah-approved New Man who adjusts his cup only in private and would sooner promote cannibalism than be seen with a pinch of tobacco in his lip.

There was small, but not insignificant, consolation in the thought of both George Will and Ron Shelton recoiling in horror at the sudden sight of the giant, disembodied head of McBeal, like some cinematic monstrosity, emerging from the commercial ooze that had up to that point been contained and inobtrusive. But mostly it seemed that a definite line had been crossed, or, more like, we were only now made aware that the line had been crossed long ago. Years later when members of the newly crowned world champion Boston Red Sox appeared on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it didn’t even raise an eyebrow (queer or straight, plucked or uni-).
I personally took some consolation in the fact that I haven't cared about baseball for a long time. You, my baseball loving friends, will someday reach this point. Perhaps it will happen when you are watching a game and realize that not a single player from the home team is from the team's home. Or, you'll be listening to some writer or celebrity drone on about baseball as a metaphor, or baseball as a sacrament, or baseball as a--you get my point.

But then, what is the pabulum of those who rhapsodize ad nauseum about the transcendence of baseball but the opportunistic crossing of a decent boundary, an attempt to sanctify the banal (just as commerce would make banal that which should be sacred)? And aren’t these really the same sin? It seems that everyone is trying to hitch a ride on someone else's train; cross-promotion, in other words. Religion is religion. Baseball is a game. You pretentious, windy bores.
So if baseball’s corruption brings at least the benefit (in my imagination, at least) of exposing the stench of a few literary and cultural equivalents of the dung beetle, it must be that there are places where the forces of continual cultural leveling would not gain admission, where even the most short sighted and greedy marketing school hotshot wouldn’t dare tread. Some barriers will stand, surely.
But no. Even the mighty and masculine NFL would have to yield to Mammon (yes, I know it's professional football, big business, all that; work with me here), as we all witnessed with horror the intrusion into Monday Night Football of the most effete and trite work this side of the execrably chipper and comsumerist Sex and the City: the abominable Desperate Housewives. A program about—brace yourselves—the seamy underside of the suburbs! How very audacious! Why didn’t I think of that?
Damn them. Damn them to whatever circle of Hell is reserved for the unoriginal, just below that marked out for those of you who enable these miscreants by watching their blather. You know who you are; you’ll repent now if you know what’s good for you.

But back to the NFL's disgrace. If you have the stomach for it, allow me to refresh your memory. MNF had devised a clever way to introduce the program. The first one I recall went like this: It’s six o’clock and the commercial bank is interrupted not by the familiar strains of MNF, as the viewer is conditioned to expect, but by Matlock. We are dropped into mid-episode and Andy Griffith is addressing a jury; just as you’re wondering out loud what is going on, he turns to the screen and says enthusiastically, “are you ready for some football?”
If they could be that clever every time I probably wouldn’t be boring you with this lament. But of course, that’s the problem with cross-promotion. It cannot be contained; it will never say enough. It is as much uncontrollable momentum as it is an idea. It floods every void and finds nothing inviolable; it is as mindless and inexorable as water’s tendency to find its own level.

The brutality of corporate competition ensures that cross-promotion will not be restrained. No one can afford to back down, because if Arid Extra Dry doesn’t collar you in the department store queue, well, Speed Stick will have you all to itself in the pay phone booth. So each is trying to head you off at the pass before the other; meanwhile you can find no peace. Cross-promotion is the desperation of a million Willy Lomans armed with the latest technology, all jockeying and elbowing each other for our attention.

I have digressed. The Incident. The network had by now abandoned their earlier model, which was to fake their eager football audience into thinking that some other program was airing and end with the punchline are you ready for some football? On this eveining they thought to try their hand at sketch comedy, with predictably grim results. Thus they gave us the great T.O./Desperate Housewives incident of whatever godforsaken year it was.
It opens with Terrell Owens at his locker before the game; one of the Housewives shows up wearing only a towel, flirts for a moment, and convinces T.O. to forgo the game long enough to, well, use your imagination. The piece ends with her leaping into his arms. Cut to the rest of the Housewives, saying (over a phone if I remember correctly—who knows why): Are you ready for some football? Well, I was a moment ago. Now I'm ready for a stiff drink.

No doubt the frustrated comedy writers behind this anticipated some controversy over the sexual nature of the spot, and that this controversy would be complicated and magnified by the predictable-as-clockwork reflex action of others who could be counted on to charge racism on the part of the offended because T.O. is black (and widely disliked) and the actress is white. A good week or more (eons by promotional standards) of Housewives saturating the airwaves. The writers’ guile at manipulating the public is as expert as their comedic talents are rudimentary.
But I was dismayed to find no one making the point that the yentas from Desperate Housewives intruding on Monday Night Football is, if not a crime, at least a considerable misdemeanor. It begs the question: where does it all end? In the name of decency, where? Is there no space that will not be intruded upon?
Every unguarded moment must be utilized to compel consumption of one sort or another; computer generated monstrosities projected onto the bare stretch of green wall behind the batter in the box, video screens in the supermarket check-out line and at the self-service gasoline pump, product placements in film, celebrities making clumsy mention of products in interviews. Soon all public speech will sound like an interview with a victorious stock car driver, making sure to mention every sponsor.

Because what is cross-promotion after all but the same homogenizing, corporate disdain-all-boundaries and take-every-advantage mentality that has infected all aspects of American life, bringing us politicians who must prove their everyman cred by answering the boxers or briefs question, the smirk of Keith Olbermann, Tucker Carlson’s phony irreverence, an inexhaustible font of second-rate slasher films, political media managers, Anderson Cooper airing insurgent videos of snipers killing American boys, fan sites, pop-up ads, celebrity news coverage, junk mail and spam, telemarketing; all the effluvium that is filling the space between us and reality with hallucinatory haze and shrill noise?
What are the consequences then, when these things spilling over onto one another are products not only of commerce but of culture? Isn't one thing lessened when it is pressed into the service of another?
It is inevitable. I know. I won’t stop it. Nothing will stop it; giving it free reign is preferable to attempting its regulation. But I do wonder if the boosters of ever more homogenization and the trashing of any and all remaining boundaries (because we all know that boundaries of any sort are bad, very, very bad) think through the process and where it will leave us.

Recently I read that some are working on ways to take advantage of the public urinal. This once inviolable space will be exploited soon, with electronic ads activated when one bellies up, so to speak. It's probably too much to hope they'll do us the favor of projecting the screen where we might express our disapproval non-verbally. I just dare Ms. McBeal to intrude there.

3 comments:

Steve Sailer said...

When I was in marketing research, I remember reading about a firm that was going to place ads in the bottom of the cups on golf courses, the golf course being host to a lucrative demographic, but the rolling expanses of green were rather lacking in places to put up signage. The CEO was quite proud of his brainstorm.

Dennis Dale said...

I imagine telling one of these guys to put his ad where the sun don't shine, only to witness him put his chin between thumb and forefinger, furrow his brow and look away, deep in thought. Maybe he would say, after a moment:
"Nah, 'd never work."
Maybe.

Anonymous said...

The use of public pissers for advertising is nothing new (in concept at least) - James Joyce has Leopold Bloom (himself an advertising canvasser) conceive of the idea in Ulysses, in which chapter I can't recall, but it occurs as Bloom passes over the River Liffey. This is set in 1904, published in 1922. It might seem unfortunate, but intrusive, unrelenting commerce has been around at least that long, and who knows that merchants weren't scrawling ads on privy walls in Shakespeare's day? What a work is man, eh?