Anyone who’s spent any time in New York knows about Ray’s Original Pizza. Or Original Ray’s Pizza. Or Ray’s Pizza. Or Ray’s. There are dozens of pizzerias all bearing some version of the name, almost none of them affiliated by anything other than a shared desire to bake the name “Ray” onto the word “pizza” and thus attain a credibility of some kind.
A more contemporary version of this oddity of representation might be American brands boldly asserting their American heritage – “Quality since 1843”– on the cardboard container of a product made wholly in China by non-union workers earning criminally low wages.
There’s always been a rubbery weld between the truth and advertising, and many of us have been entertained by that pliability for years. We love old TV commercials where the products seem responsible for impossible miracles or the healing of family wounds: Breakfast cereals that bring Dad and Son together, headache remedies that mend the life-long tensions between Mother and Daughter, dinner entrees so tasty they make your husband want to have sex.
But suggesting that a bowl of “Hamburger Helper” somehow lays the groundwork, if you will, for bedroom fireworks later in the evening is hardly the same as pharmaceutical companies using TV images of family love and a better life to sell a drug that reaps billions, then turns out to have horrifying side effects. And that’s just one area where our threshold for untruth (or non-truth, or reduced truthiness…) in advertising is changing. Still, advertising continues to rewrite the Rolling Stones song since it almost always gets what it wants and what it needs.
Well, they’re finally doing something about this in Washington DC. Not the government; baseball fans. Fans of the Washington Nationals baseball team have a brand new stadium, Nationals Park, that’s so energy-efficient it’s the country’s first certified green major professional sports stadium. Energy-conserving lights, water-conserving plumbing… a stadium Al Gore can love. However, one of the sponsors paying for visibility on a left-field wall and the scoreboard is ExxonMobil. A coalition of environmental, civic and religious groups calling itself Strike Out Exxon wants the Nationals to stop letting the oil giant affiliate with a green venue. They’re pretty clear about why: ExxonMobil’s visibility at the green ballpark “burnishes the image of the worst environmental company on the planet”, according to one spokesman for Strike Out Exxon.
At first blush the Nationals conflict seems very 21st century, but advertising has always aligned the good with the sinister in looking for a boost. For decades before we wised-up, cigarettes were deployed like candy or gum by actors in films and television. Now if you want to get cigarettes into a movie you have to work really hard, often making as many as three phone calls.
What is new about Strike Out Exxon’s protest is the clear implication that there’s something wrong, morally wrong, about an oil company slapping its name all over a serious green project. Strike Out isn’t concerned about truth, since everyone knows ExxonMobil had nothing to do with the energy efficient design and execution of the stadium. They’re not concerned about accuracy, because no one believes for a minute that ExxonMobil gives a hoot in hell about the environment. Instead, it’s a new take on cooperating with advertising: If you suck, you can’t pretend that you don’t. Or at least, use our stadium to pretend you don’t.
Some will say it’s a tempest in a teapot because the battleground isn’t major media but rather the electric signage at one ballpark. But that’s only because major media crushes all tempests. Right this minute, someone is trying to figure out how to “product place” liquor and cigarettes in a TV series one of your kids will likely view. CNN has no problem running oil company commercials during its environmental specials, and according to full-page ads in magazines and newspapers… coal is “clean.” So if you’re looking for a fight, you’re left with the ExxonMobil ads on the new green baseball park.
Years ago, I had a great summer job selling chicken and other picnic foods at the Summerfest music festival in Milwaukee. I brought out a bowl of potato salad for a woman, and she noticed a hair in it. “I’ll go get you another one” I said, and went in back to get it. I brought it out, and she said, “You didn’t just pull the hair off the first salad, did you?” I won’t tell you exactly what happened that day, but I will say this: I didn’t dump billions of gallons of foul, ecosystem-destroying human hair into the world’s oceans. Had I done that, I would not expect my name to appear on jars of hair-free potato salad. That would be wrong.