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When It Comes to Ads, Is Nothing Sacred?

Trends: From clothes to airline seats to music centers to the Internet, corporate names--and places to splash them--are becoming ubiquitous.

June 08, 1997|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Writer David Shenk is not an avid sports fan, but he tuned in for the final minutes of this year's Masters golf tournament to watch Tiger Woods' celebrated victory. Shenk also noticed something else--apparel.

"There was a series of close-up shots of all the finalists," he said, "and every single guy was wearing a big baseball cap with a logo of whatever company was sponsoring him." He found it depressing. "I think it really debases the whole idea of what sports is about to be selling these products."

When did our clothes become billboards?

Maybe it was about the time our Internet e-mail started being loaded up every day with sales pitches. Or we couldn't get signed onto AOL without jumping through the sales hoop for "the New AOL Platinum Visa Card!"

Or when we were watching a baseball game on ESPN and, across the bottom of the screen, crawled a commercial for Hershey bars.

Or it could have been the first sighting of an MTA city bus painted like an Egg McMuffin, or the door of every apartment in our "security" building hung with a pizza delivery flier, or picking up the golf ball after putting on the 18th hole and reading a tiny message in the cup: Drink Coca Cola!

National Public Radio recently reported on an experiment in Sweden with a marketing program that interrupted private telephone conversations with 30-second commercials. What next? Unsolicited commercials in the shower? Sponsored sermons on Sunday?

Consumer activist Michael Jacobson says that an erosion of interest in television ads and access to new technology have sent marketers knocking on once-forbidden doors. Inside the home or out, says Jacobson, any site where a potential consumer lurks seems to be fair game.

"Coming out of the subway, you see the risers on the back of stairs have ads," he said. "Product placement in TV and movies. And baseball stadiums--they have dozens of signs and scoreboard messages promoting beer and cigarettes and local car dealers and gasoline additives. We used to go to parks, now we go to theme parks."

American shoppers, long the target of Madison Avenue's increasingly skilled marketing campaigns, have learned how to live with the challenge--using the TV remote, punching up another radio station or flipping past the pages we don't want to read. But consumers only think they're in charge, warns Henry Labalme, executive director of TV-Free America. "The people on Madison Avenue aren't idiots--they know we turn off commercials."

As a result, advertising has gotten ever-more sophisticated and subtle, he noted--the Nike ads don't even mention their name, just "swoosh!" "And people are paying money for all those clothes with Marlboro and Nike on them. We might as well be going around with a bar code tattooed on our foreheads, because we are the product."

Although his Washington-based organization, formed to combat excessive TV watching, has sponsored a national TV-Free week for the past three years, it's like trying to stamp out an anthill one ant at a time. TV sets have invaded supermarkets, malls, food courts, airport waiting areas, even the backs of airline seats, he lamented.

"The blank pages and silent moments in life are fast disappearing," said Shenk, who has just written a book entitled "Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut" (HarperCollins). The Brooklyn-based Shenk has written for Wired, Harper's and Spy; his book explores the cultural consequences of the information revolution's unchecked technological tide, including some survival guidelines.

Not only is there more advertising (by some estimates, ad budgets in the U.S. have increased by 50% over the past 10 years), enhanced technology allows marketers to shave niche marketing to a fine point: A couple with a new baby, for instance, is suddenly flooded with diaper samples and baby-food coupons. Woe betide the online user whose profile mentions golf as a hobby.

At the same time, shrinking government budgets have forced new and at times ominous alliances. "Public-private partnerships" are being invoked like a national mantra as cities are forced to turn to corporate partners for everything from arts centers to trash cans.

Only recently, an aide to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had to emphasize to reporters that "We aren't going to change Central Park to Budweiser Park," because the city was lining up corporate sponsors for playgrounds and police cars. And in downtown Los Angeles, the financially struggling Disney Concert Hall has announced the Ron Burkle--Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation Auditorium in response to a substantial gift.

Even critics acknowledge there's something energizing about the new alliances, an underscoring of the typical love-hate relationship between American consumers and advertising. "My pet peeve is the fax machine," said Beverly Hills chiropractor Dan Jacobsen. "All those junk solicitations in with the medical reports I want.

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