When I turned on my computer and logged on to the Internet before writing this column, I found 256 emails in my inbox.
The majority offered a mind-expanding and bewildering range of consumer products, all available at just the twitch of a finger.
There were coupons in great numbers from Walmart, Costco, CVS, you name it. They wanted to sell me giant blueberries, cherry tree hedges, blackberry plants. Sprays to cure thinning hair and belly fat. Other ads claimed to offer sex, whether affairs with married women (since life is short) or neighborhood hook-ups.
There were ads for sunglasses. Flexible garden hose. Remedies for sciatic pain, varicose veins, bad teeth and bad breath.
Who knew there were so many consumer products out there, each jostling for my attention … and money? My mind wandered as I ran down the list, deleting away and trying to avoid accidentally erasing the few actual messages from real people I knew.
All this led me to muse about the two major consumer product campaigns that dominate this time of year: Politics and college sports.
When it comes to politics, the marketing is mostly in the form of TV advertisements. The appeals, however, are often just as spurious as the emails clogging my computer.
Look at the posts by the ever-vigilant Michigan Truth Squad, and you’ll find many political ads are either based on outright untruths or “spun” from wholly unsubstantiated inferences about motive or political associations.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the nonpartisan outfit that’s been tracking political expenditures for years, estimates that something like $50 million will have been spent in Michigan on television advertising in the races for governor and U. S. Senate before we vote next Tuesday.
That’s a ton of dough, much of which is “dark money,” cash contributed by unknown and unreported donors who have something to hide, whose anonymity is protected by laughably lax state reporting standards and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case that corporations are people and that giving unlimited amount of money is First Amendment- protected free speech.
That’s meant that various billionaires, often from out of state, get to plunk down hundreds of thousands of dollars telling us what to think and which political product to support – and we don’t even get to know who is trying to buy or brainwash us.
(Of course, they know far better what’s in our best interest than the mere provincials who live and vote here.)
What’s troubling about this expensive exercise is that our most fundamental civic duty – voting – risks being reduced to little more than a consumer product … to be marketed in the same way as flexible garden hose or giant blueberries.
And the word that comes to my mind for this is, well, unseemly.
But the fact is that it works. TV advertising, especially negative attack ads, demonstrably does affect opinions, moving people to vote in a certain way – or stay home entirely. Most campaigns know this and most, even while holding their noses at treating our politics as a consumer product, willingly go along; they want to win.
Increasingly, that’s also the case with college sports, especially football at this time of the year. College sports has in recent years exploded into a multibillion-dollar consumer product industry. According to the Wall Street Journal, since 2007, the college sports industry has done $20 billion in TV deals.
Many universities are now, to use marketing parlance, an “established brand,” to be promoted as a consumer product by all the devices available to marketers: TV advertising, flyovers, ticket sales linked to soft drinks. Sales of college-branded merchandise runs into the millions, with the University of Michigan ranked number three nationally in sales, behind respectively the universities of Texas and Alabama. Michigan State gear, now on the upswing, came in last year at $3.6 million, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Once again, there is something unseemly about the huge efforts devoted to marketing universities and their sports programs. Sure, the games are great entertainment.
Yes, it’s fun for college fans to happily and appropriately celebrate their enthusiasm and loyalty.
But treating a university and its sports programs as another version of a marketed consumer good seems to me to reflect a confusion of values and a misplaced sense of priority.
Once again, in both politics and college sports, the word that keeps coming to my mind is unseemly.
I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and maybe my objections are little more than the old-fashioned grumbles of a 76 year old who isn’t all that comfortable with the realities of today’s world. Merchandising consumer products – and politics – works.
I admit it. But I don’t have to like it.
And neither do you.