Jon Reed Goes Off On... June 2005
Wednesday, June, 15 2005
Why I'm a bad sport about corporate sponsorships
So what's the problem with the corporate sponsorship of sports anyway? The glib answer, that sports are being sullied by corporate sponsors, doesn't ring true. True, in the TiVo age, marketing departments are looking for more (and more) ways to "embed" advertising within all programs, and true, sports events are sitting ducks for this kind of embedded advertising. Sports executives have certainly made it clear they are more than willing to bend over for a few extra bucks in exchange for plastering a corporate logo on top of a free throw, timeout, or any other moment they can invent, package, and sell, like that dreaded
But that's not what's offensive. What's offensive is the very idea that corporations know anything about what it takes to excel as an athlete. On the surface, it might seem you could compare the corporate "team" at McDonalds or Phizer to the sports team that just won a big game. But that's an absurd comparison. Every corporation has employees so mediocre they would drag down any championship sports team.
No, the sponsorship of sports is not about bringing winners together, it's about something a lot more diabolical: the repositioning and rebranding of the corporate image. Corporations like to sponsor things that have more soul and spontaneity than they do. Corporations are vampires that sponsor cultural moments in order to mooch off the passion generated by individuals who are volatile, brave, and brilliant - all adjectives that could never be attributed to the average multi-national enterprise.
There is definitely something impressive about how large corporations succeed - the era of mass consumption is nothing if not a study in the creation and fulfillment of perceived human needs in the most efficient and profitable manner possible. But big companies succeed by using methods that have nothing to do with what it takes to excel on the field. Excelling as an athlete involves relentless discipline, passion, and a willingness to fail in the "clutch" by putting yourself in the spotlight, win or lose. Corporations never expose themselves that nakedly. Losing a lawsuit is just another bottom line expense anticipated in the financial statement.
Every significant move a corporation makes has to be rubber stamped by a team of lawyers. There are NO behind the back passes! Everything is run up the bureaucratic flagpole. By the time the Board of Directors can approve a three point jump shot, the game is long since over. If sports teams had the ability to pluck players off rival teams and invent rules to disqualify up-and-coming opponents, then that would create a closer similarity between corporate business and sports.
Just look at Microsoft, a company that expertly uses its size and market penetration to ensure that there is virtually no competition. Companies sponsor sports to imply that they love competition, but Microsoft hates competition so much they cut off competitors at the root. A company like Microsoft would never participate in a single elimination tournament, but it wouldn't hesitate to sponsor one.
Microsoft isn't used to playing fair: it has a ten lap lead on its competition and now it just has to keep pace. Integrating its web browser into the operating system was the basketball equivalent of putting ten players on the court to opponent's five and saying, "let's play ball, Netscape!" Does Microsoft win? yes. Does it take skill? yes. Is it real win-or-lose competition between evenly-matched adversaries? Absolutely not. If you disagree, I've got the names and numbers of some software entrepreneurs with footprints of Microsoft on their neck to introduce you to. If corporations had to compete the way a sports team did, they'd be screwed. Their skill is winning from a position of strength; their golf handicap starts them on the putting green. Nice putt, Wal-Mart, but don't pump your chest like you drove the damn ball onto the green yourself!
Speaking of golf, the only individual who should accept corporate sponsorships is Tiger Woods. Everything he says and does is so pre-meditated that I would readily accept the comparison between how corporations communicate and how Tiger Woods communicates. He speaks in brochures - putting a logo on top of that brochure is only natural. Other than Swooshman, corporations would do us all a service by leaving athletes alone.
I can hear the rebuttal now: "Not correct, Jon, companies have to 'compete' to succeed just like athletes do!" That's actually true of small, aggressive businesses that can't afford to sponsor the Olympics or hand out ridiculous oversized checks at the U.S. Open. But the obstacles faced by companies rich enough to sponsor major sporting events does not require breaking a sweat.
Large corporations face the business challenge of increasing branding and market share through the strategic use of enormous advertising, product development, and human resources budgets. It takes a lot of skill, but it's about systems, not individual guts and grit. The only individual in a corporation that has any valid comparison to the elite athlete is the CEO. The CEO is the only person in the company whose performance rises and falls on a truly public stage and who is remotely accountable for a company's failings in the eyes of the market.
But CEOs don't sponsor sporting events, companies do. And while we're at it, most CEOs have no comparable incentive to win, given that their multi-million dollar pay packages are rarely tied to performance in a way that has a downside. Fortunately, that's starting to change. It would be refreshing to see these top executives pay an athlete's price for losing. I've never seen a picture of a CEO crying after a tough financial report came out. Even the disgraced Ken Lay of Enron seems to walk around with a wacky smile on his face. Has anyone bothered to tell him he's a fucking loser?
I've met champions in business, but they're mostly people the public has never heard of. I've seen people work seven days weeks and make unheard of sacrifices to keep their business afloat, running up credit cards on faith. Who has more championship grit, those brave Mom and Pops who put their all business hopes on a credit card, or MasterCard, that mammoth sports sponsor - a company that wins regardless of whether a business racking up MasterCard debt makes good on that debt or not?
Yep, I can't do anything about companies that link their names to slam dunks and stolen bases. They'll buy any "sports moment" they can, and they will find plenty of willing sellers amongst promiscuous sports executives. In fact, they've got their research teams in the lab right now, working overtime to invent new ways to chop up and sell sports by the minute. There's isn't much a lone voice like me can do to stop the shilling. But at the very least, we can de-mystify what's happening and call it what it is: a shameful and cunning attempt to link the hearts of champions with the cold market calculations of multi-national companies with little real competition.
Monday, June, 06 2005
Rolling the credits on Starz
Just a quick heads up from a subscriber. I just wanted to say, you know the credits that roll at the end of a film? Well, how should I put this, ok, how about: THEY ARE PART OF THE FUCKING MOVIE!!!!! Blasting out your Starz promos the second the film ends is a scuzzy move. What, you're worried we don't realize that Starz is a movie channel and that after this film ends, another movie might be coming on? Let's put aside the minor issue that when you push the credits into a split screen in order to plug yourself that the credits are no longer readable. How about this one: that the music that goes with the end credits is actually considered part of the damn film! Are you surprised to learn this? It seems odd that I would know more about movies than you guys do, but that's evidently the case. Identity commercials for channels like yours seem bizarre anyhow. Do you really think there are people out there who might watch Starz over HBO because they they like Starz better? I'm guessing most people are like me (here goes a big idea for your suits to wrap their heads around): they watch the channel that is showing the movie they feel like watching! And maybe, just maybe, they'd like to watch the entire film IN ITS ENTIRETY and have the option to see who performed in that film. I like to fantasize that grips could sue you guys for their names not being legible in the credits, but I'll bet you huddled with your legal team already and determined that as long as the credit appears, you have fulfilled your legal obligations, even if the credit isn't visible to the human eye. So perhaps you've satisfied your lawyers, but you've lowered the bar for how much advertising you can jam into the airwaves. Maybe we can have a compromise: you can run ads during movie credits, but only when the closing credit song is by Kenny Loggins, Jennifer Lopez, or Bob Seger. Fair enough? Then let the credits roll.
Wednesday, June, 01 2005
Jane's Addiction Comes Down the Mountain, Joins the Stones, Peter Gabriel, the Who, Queen
Perry Farrell always has a trick up his sleeve, but did we ever expect to hear him "Coming Down the Mountain" with Coors Light? Perhaps not, but we also never expected Queen to endorse Viagra with "We are the Champions," Peter Gabriel to endorse Gray's Anatomy with "Solisbury Hill," Aerosmith to endorse Buick with "Dream On," or for The Who to endorse every product or service on the market today, whoring any song in the back catalog to various corporate endeavors, including the double-barrel sale of "Baba O'Riley" to both American Express and Hewlett Packard. And make no mistake, guys, you are not just selling songs but endorsing corporate America, the same lovely folks who brought us Enron, World Com, outsourcing, California power outages/"deregulation," and other 401K-busting projects. It's definitely a teenage wasteland out there, especially for those of us whose emotions are tied to rock 'n' roll memories that are now being cynically (and frantically) associated with the false buzz of the product du jour. The more questionable/desperate the product, the more likely it is to require the "emotional association" of an iconic cultural moment. The only thing more sickening than this disgusting cash grab is how few artists or consumers even give a shit. I guess for most people it's all good, after all, it's "All About the Benjamins." But here's the problem: if you lie down and let someone take something beautiful from you, you have only yourself to blame. I am a capitalist and a businessman, but I for one will never apologize for believing in a world where some things are not, and should never be, for sale. Sadly, I can't say the same for the Rolling Stones, who crossed the last line in the sand they had left with the sale of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" to Coca Cola and to Tommy Hilfiger's new reality series "The Cut." Thanks guys, for really Letting it Bleed.