Commoditizing politics and football

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 10/28/2014 - 7:41am
The TV mute button is getting a heavy workout these days, thankfully the political ads will disappear next week. It is hard not to be cynical about the whole political process when you are being bombarded with this junk aggresively day after day.
Tue, 10/28/2014 - 9:26am
Could it be time to look outside the 'box' of seeing only campaign spending and ask what are voter listening for and why? The answer could lead to a new way of helping voters become better informed. It could be a 'game changer.' Don Canham changed college marketing, why not Phil Power changing voter education at election time? Don Canham looked outside the 'box' of appealing to the males on gameday and went looking for ways to draw in the females. Phil Power could look beyond the 'box' of those spending the money and look at what those who are the targets of all the spending want to hear/learn about. It could be time for a 'game changer' in Michigan elections.
Tue, 10/28/2014 - 9:48am
First thing we need to do is to undo the undemocratic gerrymandering done by our GOP legislature. Then we can get a legislature that represents all voters, not just the GOP selected ones. Phil - hope you will look at the legislation being pushed in MI to change the electoral college; another very undemocratic move by a legislature bent on limiting the vote in as many ways as possible.
Tue, 10/28/2014 - 1:14pm
Phil got it right all the way! Thank God there's still some sane people out there publishing something worth reading...
Charles Richards
Tue, 10/28/2014 - 5:55pm
It is, and has always been, perfectly legitimate to influence voters. It has always been done and will always be done. That is what politics is about. Admittedly, the campaign ads are appalling, but that results from the lack of demand for reasoned, sophisticated political discourse on the part of voters. As Mr. Power says, "Merchandising consumer products – and politics – works" In each case, marketing consultants have made judgments about their potential market. You will notice that ads directed at upscale customers are considerably different than those aimed at down market customers. In the case of consumer goods, marketers can select separate channels for different demographics; that is not the case when it comes to voters. There, educated, discriminating, thoughtful voters are deprived of logical, evidence based arguments about public policy because there is insufficient demand for them from their fellow voters. Mr. Power laments the amount of money spent on campaigns, but would reducing the amount of money improve the quality of the campaign ads? Doubtful. That would require far better journalism that frames issues in terms of their pluses and minuses. And it would require more citizens less motivated by envy and resentment and more motivated by a desire to promote the common good even if that would temporarily work to their disadvantage.