Like a relentless Moloch, commercialism is no longer just creeping; it is charging into arenas hitherto off limits. Remember when Olympic competitions were amateur sports; now the paid stars sport corporate logos that get louder and larger the better to be seen on television.
Remember when the public schools provided students with the sanctuary of their classrooms. Now big brother, Channel One, beams ten minutes of MTV-like news and two minutes of underarm deodorant, soft drink, designer shoes etc. advertisements before a captive classroom audience of millions of students. Commercialism doesn’t always prevail. Ten years ago, large corporations failed to persuade the Postal Service to allow their logos on postage stamps. Coca-Cola, for example, would have had its insignia on all $.29 stamps. Citizen protests from around the country reached the Postal Service’s top managers’ sense of restraint. They wondered what would be next — the backs of letter carriers!
But the other barriers to the mercantile mania are falling. There was a time when the hucksters would only exploit the image of pre-20th century U.S. presidents. Regularly the marketeers use Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin and George Washington to sell everything from cars to carpets. But they would lay off their Presidential contemporaries.
No more. Enter Bill Clinton, against his will, as a prop for KLQ-Radio in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The station sponsored a billboard with Clinton holding a pitchfork next to the words, “Little Rock,” side by side with Clinton holding a radio next to the words, “Lotta Rock.”
Reebok’s Rockport Shoe Company advertised that “everything in the Oval Office will change. Except the shoes,”declaring that both Presidents Bush and Clinton wear the brand.
After Clinton’s election, a brewing company reprinted a news article about Clinton drinking Moosehead beer. The ad headlined: “Proof that President-Elect Clinton didn’t avoid the draft.”
What is the Clinton’s White House position on such ads? A Clinton spokesperson says that unauthorized use of images of the President, Vice-President, First Lady, or White House for commercial gain is forbidden. However, there is no active opposition to these ads from the Oval Office, for to do so would give greater notice to the ad.
Down in Atlanta, Mayor Maynard Jackson offers his boosterism for a new depth of commercialism. He has hired one Joel Babbit to Implement “ideas [that] include raising millions of dollars by renaming streets and parks for corporate sponsors, implanting high-tech advertising in city sidewalks and sticking corporate logos on city garbage trucks.” Already, Babbit has arranged for Visa USA to become the “official preferred credit card of Atlanta,” for a price of $3 million over the next five years.
Cities are hurting for money, Babbit rationalizes, adding: “Atlanta is sitting, as most cities are, with thousands of non-income producing assets. . . We don’t get a penny from calling Piedmont Park, the largest in Atlanta, Piedmont Park.” He said why not get a million dollars a year from changing the name to Georgia-Pacific Park!
The Washington Post cultural critic, Jonathan Yardley, satirized Babbit by imagining what the District of Columbia could get for renaming the Mall, “Pall Mall,” or replacing Lafayette Square with Air France, or Ford Motor Co., for the Lincoln Memorial, or Boeing for the Air and Space Museum.
Becoming serious, Yardley responds to Babbit’s shrug: “But if it brings in money that helps our citizens, what’s the harm?” “If you have to ask, you’ll never know,” said Yardley, the streets and parks and monuments and public buildings of a city are the
repositories of that city’s heritage and the common property of its citizens. . .These civic treasures belong to the people of Atlanta and the people of Washington, not to the hucksters.”
Restraining commercialism within market boundaries is more than a matter of taste. It is a matter of public and private integrity, of leaving other important values free from the taints of the lucre and its inevitably corrosive impact. It is retaining the ability to see the forest undebauched by neon lights.
The Center for the Study of Commercialism (1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009) which collected the Clinton ad examples noted above, will send you, on request, materials on how to combat this plague of the pitchmen who think that no fields can escape becoming their pitchgrounds.