Every year around his birthday, business firms seem bent on giving George Washington more careers. In Boston recently our first President was seen on television repeatedly selling Datsuns. In New York City, he was pushing carpets. Around the nation’s capital, he was seen telling readers of the Washington Post that “Leasing is a revolutionary New Idea!”
These are mere examples that can only suggest the many and diverse sales jobs that General Washington has been made to assume throughout the Republic he helped found. In the latter part of February he is enlisted as America’s number one hawker, selling everything from Japanese cars to banking services to clothing to simply the Big Sales themselves that so becloud his birthday with tidal waves of commercialisms.
The American Retail Federation has no apologies. In response to a letter I sent President Reagan asking him, as the keeper of Presidential images, to urge merchants to leave George Washington alone, a spokesman said that the Founding father would approve of how he is being used because he believed in free enterprise.
There is, one hopes, such principles as taste and decorum to be applied to our country’s historical figures. I know of no other society whose businesses turn past leaders into present hucksters to enhance sales and profits. While American companies are misusing the reputations of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to pitch products, their counterpart in Mexico would never make Benito Juarez into a tamale Nor would the British so “employ” Gladstone to sell Jaguars or the Germans parade Bismarck on television as a pitchman for Volkswagens.
The lengthening advertising frenzy surrounding George
Washington’s birthday drowns out the Opportunity to take into account an annual remembrance of what he did and meant to America. A sleazy marketplace takes over and replaces the commemoration. I turned on television one recent February and saw a local Department Store, Hecht’s, bring Mr. Washington on to announce a sale “at 8 a.m. on my birthday.” Then comes an announcer’s hard sell, followed by a woman’s sultry voice cooing: “Oh, George, your sale is simply gorgeous.” Then George Washington comes back onto the tube, turns his head, winks and lets viewers see a lipstick mark on his cheek.”
Some adults may chuckle when they see these portrayals, but year after year as the commercial exploitation of George Washington and other revered American Presidents and founders expands in frequency and intensity, something is happening to our perceptions. We cease to view their birthdays as occasions for reflecting on their contributions. For in the public media they have been shorn from history and transformed by the Big Sell.
It is among millions of youngsters that the effect is more pronounced. A small, but not atypical episode that came to my attention in 1980 made the point. A teacher held up a picture of George Washington in her first grade class and asked the children if they knew him. One six year old proudly exclaimed: “He sells things on television.” In the minds of these young children, the television image is blotting out the historical reality cannot prohibit the effrontery of these merchants and businesses. But a consumer revulsion against these odiously dramatized advertisements can roll them back. Let the merchants sell their products on the basis of price, quality, safety, durability and service, if they can. And parents who do not want to have to tell their little ones “no Virginia, no Victor, George Washington doesn’t and didn’t sell hamburgers”, can also inform these sellers of their disapproval.
But no one can arouse the public in this regard more quickly and appropriately than Ronald Reagan. Since he has often pronounced his views on various elements of patriotism and tradition, this venture should be a piece of cake. Certainly he cannot be lookingfondly on the prospect that sometime in the 21st century, companies may decide to feature his likeness on behalf of a beer or cosmetic commercial.
So, President Reagan, for your sake and that of the American people, would you please help get Madison Avenue off George Washington’s back.