Art, Not Ads
In his piece on NFL advertising, Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner argues that the NFL should relax its limitations on advertising, so as to bring its rules more in line with organizations like European league soccer. He makes this argument based on two main reasons. First, the fans in Europe are used to it, and they don’t mind. Americans, too, would grow accustomed to such advertising. Second, it would generate an enormous amount of money. They’d be able to pay their players more. When one fan of the Buffalo Bills was asked if he’d be upset if advertising was allowed on the Bills’ jerseys, he responded by saying, “If it helps them win, I’d be all for it.” Dubner uses this to imply that increased advertising revenue would help teams win, because he leaves the fan’s quote at that.
Dubner offers some rebuttals. Advertising on the players’ uniforms would undermine the sponsorship deals already in place with star players. Imagine the horror Eli Manning must have felt when he would no longer be able to honor his Rolex sponsorship because Timex put ads on the Giants’ practice jerseys! Dubner dismisses this rebuttal on the grounds that sharing the wealth isn’t always a bad thing – something I don’t necessarily disagree with. Rather than Manning getting all the sponsorship money, everyone on the team would be able to enjoy a slice of the advertising pie. Finally, Dubner’s main rebuttal is the “tradition” argument. The NFL has a long tradition of not allowing advertising, so why should we change now? Dubner correctly dismisses this rebuttal as well, simply because our modern economy is a changing one. Advertisements are commonplace now, and European league soccer is a prime example.
Unfortunately for Dubner, he has committed a grave crime in argumentation (now may be as appropriate a time as any to propose that we update the term “Strawman” to the more era appropriate, 21st century equivalent: The “blow-up doll” fallacy of argumentation is to mis-state your opponent’s arguments, making them appear weaker, and attacking those weak arguments. It’s not arguing at all; at best, it’s arguing with an inanimate object, the downgrade in satisfaction derived therein being roughly proportional to the difference in satisfaction between engaging a beautiful woman, or a blow up doll, in intercourse of your choosing, verbal or otherwise), insulting the intelligence of his readership, hoping in vain that key facts will escape our awareness. His pitiful summarization of his opposing arguments is, quite honestly, embarassing for all parties involved, and the following is an attempt to alleviate some of this embarassment. Firstly, none of what he’s said is relevant. Yes. Europeans do advertise quite a bit on their uniforms. Last time I checked, Americans don’t care what Europeans do. Further, Americans actually tend to do the opposite of what Europeans do. In fact, the United States has fought about a half dozen wars, to varying degrees of intensity, with European countries emphasizing this very point. We don’t like Europe. That’s why we moved to America.
Yes, there is a lot of money involved. Money for the owners of the teams, that is. Is there money in this deal for me? No? Okay then, I’m not interested. Enough said. Why should I be jumping up and down with excitement as a few hundred billionaires make themselves a few extra hundred million, myself being blasted with eye-pollution as a side effect?
Further, money isn’t just “generated.” It comes from somewhere. The NFL would get this money from advertisers, and advertisers get that money from you. That’s right, they factor their advertising budgets right into the prices they charge at the marketplace. So every ad you see is really just your own money coming back at you in a different form.
Advertising revenue won’t help the Bills win. The Bills’ advertising revenue will, of course, allow their players to be paid more. Unfortunately for the Bills, the Patriots are going to be able to pay their players a lot more. Opening the advertising flood gates would actually harm the Bills’ chances of victory, as well as many other small-market teams.
The tradition of the NFL should not be discarded and sold. I’m not saying fans will stop watching, but I am saying that they won’t be impressed if the NFL sells its soul.
Though it doesn’t appear on the teams’ balance sheets, this fact still exists: teams currently advertise their own logos and branding on their jerseys. This brand is pitched to viewers every time a player steps on the field wearing the sacred jersey. The jersey represents more than just the team, because the team represents the city. When you sell the rights to the jersey, you sell the city. Is your hometown the city of New York or the city of Red Bull? The city of Portland or the city of Toyota?
All humans are endowed with certain natural inclinations and desires. One of these desires is to be a part of the tribe, and to fight the other tribes. In the 19th century and prior, nations would manifest this desire by fighting small wars with one another. Families would often picnic nearby and watch the battles. In the 20th century, we realized this wasn’t going to work. Instead, we began to manifest this desire by playing sports. Our outlet for the nationalistic tribalism with which we are so ubiquitously endowed by nature presently, appropriately, and safely, unfolds on the sports field. We no longer wish to kill our neighbors to prove our superiority, we just want to beat them in football. This instinctual and inherently human exercise in tribal pride is made entirely flaccid when the name of our tribe is replaced with the name of the highest bidder.
From the broadest perspective possible, why do we have advertising? What purpose does it serve? Simply put, the purpose of advertising is to communicate information from companies to consumers. Toyota advertises because it wants people to buy Toyotas. But a large part of Toyota’s motivation to advertise is so that it can fight the advertising efforts of its competitors. Toyota is sitting at a baseball game amongst Ford, GM, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and so on. One of them stands up to better view the action. This causes all others behind him to, like dominoes, be forced to stand to reclaim their initial view. Eventually, as we have it today, all advertisers are standing, jumping, getting on shoulders, and doing anything they can to get a better view of the game. I suggest that everyone sit back down, and spend the money elsewhere – principally, on lower prices at the marketplace.
We have a prisoner’s dilemma. When every company breaks the bank on advertising, none are better off. The tide draws out evenly, with no long term competitive advantage for anyone in particular. But if one were to suddenly drop out, a significant sales dip would be forseeable. We have a prisoner’s dilemma, and everyone’s cheating. The only loser is the consumer, who is locked into paying for the advertising budgets of companies which are locked in an advertising war.
This may be properly construed by the reader to be a condemnation of the advertising industry as a whole – but to be an industry, you must produce something, and I submit that advertisers do not. The best I could do would be to say that our economy is inflicted with a plague of advertising, and you are hereby beseeched, dear reader, to remove yourself from harm’s way. Advertising is eye pollution. Given the short distance between the eye and the brain, figuratively and quite literally, advertisements pollute one’s mind. Go two weeks without exposing yourself to advertisements. Then come back, and let yourself be offended by that first ad. Do not ignore the appalled state of mind you may find yourself to inhabit when your virgin senses are intruded upon by that irrelevant commercial information. Do not let go of that feeling of disgust; it is closer to reality than many may ever come.
Comment by my sister Lydia in response, on 12/12/2010
I could not agree with this post more. So many people don’t think advertisements or logos affect them but to ignore the effect they have is to only be naive and allow the ad to take its full power in your subconscious mind. Your mind has a working memory of your sensory input, your take in everything your eye sees and your ears hear, but you choose what to place in your conscious memory through focus and attention. Everything else still has an effect on you, still leaves an imprint in your sensory memory that continues building through your whole life. To ignore the power any image or symbol has only allows it to grow unmonitored and abundant in your mind.
And thank you so much for pointing out the fact that the only people who benefit from advertising and brand development are the CEOS and big honchos. The consumer is the butt of the joke, the short end of the stick in this scenario. We are paying these corporations billlions of dollars so THEY can convince US of what WE need. Not only do we face an impenetrable oligopolgy in most of our industries (The free market was torn apart by laissez-faire government regulation of big business, what do you THINK the super-rich, big bullies in the back of the classroom would do when the teacher told them she wasn’t looking?), through these advertisements the corportations begin to develop techniques of mind control and manipulation to convince you that you need these things. If Toyota is such a great company and car, shouldn’t they be spending all their money on making cars and the consumer can make an educated decision on the highest quality product? The fact they need to convince us that much shows they are hiding something else. In a true free market the products and services speak for themselves.
Advertising can have a place in a healthy society but it needs to remain checked and monitored, not allowed to run rampant and be the main underlying force of a culture’s direction and values. What’s good for big business is not good for the common person.
Thank you for this post and I’m very impressed with your holistic logic and to what end you take the thoughts. You don’t just stop at the easy answer. Keep up the insightful work!
This is an essay I published last fall. I made a few arguments, and exposed what I still consider to be the classic weakness of the kind of traditional thinking that Stephen Dubner employs. I argued that we don’t need more advertisements, we actually need less. Advertising is more efficiently done on something like Craigslist, not where it’s constantly thrown at you by much of what we see today. The obtuse kind of “to the highest bidder goes the spoils, and we’re not putting any thought into this” mentality is exactly what Dubner does, it’s what a lot of powerful people do, and unfortunately, it’s a big part of what’s wrong with the world today. In this essay, I attack the backward, profit hungry, ignorant, self justifying logic behind the advertising society in which we live, specifically, America. If we aren’t our own biggest critics, someone else will be.
We should replace every advertisement with art. Just straight up art. I’d have all advertising funneled into listings like Craigslist or eBay. Efficient, and not venturing out of its place into the rest of your life.