invasion of the brain snatchers

I've been trying to write about this for days, for weeks, forever. But where to begin? How can I articulate something that permeates my brain so completely, that is always with me, that hounds me so constantly in my daily life?

It's not the US occupation of Iraq. It's not restrictive abortion laws. It's not even the Red Sox.

It's advertising.

It's corporate advertising's near-total takeover of our world.

Many people appear to be inured to it. Some people are adept at blocking it out. But I feel advertising closing in around me, crowding out the world. I am choked by it, suffocated by it. It's a constant, loud buzzing that drowns out even my own thoughts.

On the bus on the way to work this morning, when I looked up from my book, the view was a steady stream of corporate logos and taglines.

As I walked from the bus to work, the entire floor of the Union Station subway stop, and all adjacent walls, were covered in gigantic ads. That is, the main plaza of a public transit hub doubles as a horizontal billboard.

Once at my workplace, I look out the window, and the Toronto skyline is peppered with corporate logos on the tops of office buildings. Urban architecture is now incomplete without a corporate identifier.

As I drive around doing errands, I see the signs of fast-food chains - many of which where I've eaten - and involuntarily, the company's audio logo plays in my mind! I resent this deeply. These sounds have invaded my mind. These companies have snatched my brain and I want it back.

* * * *

On an average day in my home, the highlight of the day is often our nightly ritual: we stop whatever we're doing, we take care of the dogs and make our dinner, we have dinner together, timed to be finished and cleaned up by game time, and then we settle in for a baseball game. Baseball is the highlight of my day and one of the greatest pleasures of my life. And baseball is being ruined by advertising.

It's common in baseball media to complain about the length of games. Baseball does not run on a clock, it has an internal time system, and games have grown much longer over the decades. But are the usual suspects - batters stepping out to adjust their gloves, the time between pitches - to blame? Those times must be a fraction compared to the increased time spent on advertising. The time between innings has gotten longer, and continues to grow.

Well, I say, that's what my remote is for, to hit the mute button between innings. I don't like those ads, but I can avoid them. But what of the advertising during the game? Every pitching change, every stolen base, every home-team home run, every player highlight, every in-game interview - and on and on and on - is "brought to you" by some corporation. Some of the in-game ads are disguised as donations, as if major corporations could not make these paltry, tax-deductible donations without an exchange of air time.

It's not enough that I buy tickets. It's not enough that I turn on my TV every day there's a game. That's what fans do. But to the sponsors, I'm not a fan. I'm a market.

Because of a kind of advertising euphemistically called "naming rights," the names of baseball parks now change on a regular basis. San Francisco's new park has had three names since it opened in 2000. (Perhaps more, I might have missed a name.) Its predecessor, the famed, windswept Candlestick, was renamed twice before its demise. It does no good to point out that Chicago's Wrigley Field was named for the chewing-gum magnate. Wrigley was named for a person, and it has borne that person's name for more than 80 years.

My examples are from baseball, but all popular sports have been infected by corporate advertising. Venerable US college football tournaments are named for junk food, golf tournaments for cars, tennis for telecom companies, and on and on. European footballers wear their sponsorships on their jerseys, auto racers all over their vehicles. Those of us who don't like auto racing used to ridicule those silly cars plastered with dozens of logos. But if you counted up the number of corporate sponsorships during an average baseball game, I'd bet they'd be higher than the number of stickers on a NASCAR racer.

But my examples are from baseball because that's where I feel the encroachment of advertising most acutely. The sport is my refuge, my relaxation, the only time I can truly count on being taken out of my day, out of myself, out of the world around me, and brought into something wholly relaxing and absorbing. But the ever-increasing intrusion of advertising is ruining this singular experience. The ads are pushing out the sport.

* * * *

Of course it's not only sports. The arts couldn't survive without corporate sponsorship, but in the past those donors were content with a mention in the program. Those days are gone, as corporations seize the opportunity on already-broken ground. Broadway shows have above-the-title sponsorship, music and opera halls are named and renamed for their current sponsors, and the trend, we can be sure, will only increase.

If you don't watch sports and you don't attend the arts, perhaps you go to the movies. I almost never see mainstream, commercial movies, but when I do, I'm horrified by the commercials embedded in them. "Product placement" is a euphemism; it's an ad. And commercial movies are often just extended commercials for products anyway. Must every movie have a fast-food tie-in, a game, a mobile phone ad, an automobile "edition"?

Is it any wonder I feel advertising closing in around me, when seemingly every inch of space is sponsored? I remember in New York City, turning over my electronic subway pass and being greeted by a tiny corporate ad. The subway platforms and the subway cars are plastered with ads, of course. Once off the subway, as I walk into Yankee Stadium, there's an ad on the turnstile bar. And in the Stadium itself, it's not enough to line the outfield and stands with ads. That's typical. But fans at Yankee Stadiums are forced to watch commercials between innings at the ballpark. Looking away does no good. The ads are broadcast at ear-splitting volume.

* * * *

About ten years ago, we spent time in Alaska. Roaming the tundra in Denali National Park, wearing our bear bells, I had a revelation. I realized that one of the main reasons I love to visit national parks - one of the reasons I love to be in the woods, even for a few hours - is the absence of advertising. For some people, it's the quiet - the sounds of nature instead of traffic and crowds. I love that, of course, but what I crave is the visual quiet. Without the billboards, the signs, the logos, the jingles, the sponsors - without all that noise - I can relax. I can just be.

That revelation came in 1996. It's gotten so much worse since then.

I know there has always been advertising. I understand the function it serves. I even appreciate that creating advertising is a skill and an art form. Like most people, I sometimes enjoy creative advertising.

I'm not much of an idealist. I'm not dreaming of a world without advertising. My problem is the amount of advertising, the extent to which it now so thoroughly pervades our lives.

* * * *

Often when I complain about something, a reader will tell me his or her personal solution, which boils down to: don't go there. For example, if you're having problems with your cable company, don't get cable TV. But we each like what we like. I almost never see mainstream movies because I have no interest in them. I don't read popular fiction for the same reason. I don't disdain it, I just don't care for it. Like you, I like what I like. Giving up baseball to lessen my exposure to advertising is not an option, any more than living in the woods to avoid billboards is.

And why should any of us give up something we love and enjoy because of corporate intrusion? We are not the problem.

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