The Olympic Shill

Watching television is driving me nuts right now. With the London Olympics looming on the horizon, there has been a near-hostile takeover of the ads on all the Canadian and American networks, and I’ve had about enough. Lately, the Olympic-themed advertising has covered pretty much every sport scheduled for the games. While I appreciate the need for sponsorship of these massively expensive events, and while I am in full support of encouraging the athletes, the ads are stomping all over the spirit of the competition.

Since the birth of advertising, celebrities have been used to push products that relate to their careers. The original Max Factor makeup advertisements, largely in print, featured the popular starlets of Hollywood’s golden age; this made sense because the actresses who were featured pushing mascara and Pan Cake actually needed that stuff for their days on set. CoverGirl now uses Taylor Swift and Ellen Degeneres to sell their products, and I’m fine with that because both Taylor and Ellen are beautiful women who spend a great deal of time in the spotlight and who need to wear makeup. The same thing applies to Tiger Woods pushing sports gear (because he’s an athelete) or to Heidi Klum selling push-up bras (because she has something to put in the cups). These advertising contracts make sense to me.

As consumers, we generally appreciate that the people used in ads are designed to inspire us. They are not, however, indicative of a pinnacle the average Josephine can hope to reach. I’m well aware I’m not going to walk down a catwalk in my underpants to vigorous applause or knock a nearly four hundred yard drive off the tee. What they do instead is allow us to see the greatest possible use of the product being pushed down our throats by the consumption monster without needing to reach that point ourselves. If I see Katie Couric on an ad for a seven thousand dollar fridge, I don’t feel like crap about the fact that Katie’s kitchen, on television and in real life, far outshines mine, because she has a lucrative career and I don’t. I’m satisfied with a simpler life. By the same token, I can enjoy the Olympic Games without feeling disheartened that I’ll never win a competition based on speed or agility. It’s about inspiration and relativity rather than direct comparison to my own life. There is a divide between celebrities and the common person for many necessary reasons.

The current Olympic themed ads are screwing with that divide by making forced links between athletes and products, and between exceptional experiences and the mundane. Why on earth is dish soap being compared to swimming sprints? I don’t believe Olympians have time to wash their own dishes as they prepare to compete, and the whole pool would probably but shut down if someone tossed a baked-on lasagna mess into the shallow end. The two are not related in the least, yet Proctor and Gamble urges me to “go for the gold” in my after-dinner cleanup. Sheesh.

There is another advertisement that really irks me right now featuring a female boxer. While a promotion for deodorant or for muscle rub would be appropriate for her sport, this advertisement is for mascara. I could live with it if the advertising showed this young woman out on the town after a day of throwing hooks and jabs in the gym, but the entire action of the spot focuses on boxing. It was like the cosmetics company picked an attractive, talented woman at random and used her to push their product. Is she a chick? Check. Does she possess eyelashes? Check. (Both eyes, even.) What the heck? Is it realistic to use a woman who punches people for a living to sell mascara? Is there not another product that she could more appropriately represent? Way to insult her hard-earned skills, particularly in a sport traditionally dominated by males, by linking her to a fru-fru product.

I won’t say anything about the athletes in fast food commercials. You can do the math on how many times in a year an international-level competitor eats a cheeseburger out of a cardboard box. It’s a similar number to how many times this year I’ve purchased a live tarantula.

There are connections that make sense. A distance runner in an ad for Gatorade? Highly appropriate. A beach volleyball player in a commercial for waterproof sunblock? Absolutely. A gymnast in a tampon advertisement? I’ve even go for that, mindful that the woman’s brutally minimal body fat and punishing training regime probably mean she has about as much use for those smooth plastic applicators as cruise boat staff have for parachutes. It’s possible to invite athletes to appear in ads that don’t insult their dedication to their chosen sports; it’s also possible to advertise the Olympics without making weird stretches between consumer products and sports.

Using Olympic hopefuls to sell products, particularly products that have zero relationship to the pursuits to which they’ve dedicated themselves, is insulting to the consumer. We may be dumb, but we’re not that dumb. It’s also, and perhaps this is the bigger issue, disrespectful of the investments and sacrifices that have carried competitors to the games. Pushing laundry soap by using an athlete no one has likely heard of before does not give that person credit for his or her successes. It does not acknowledge how many things that athlete has overcome or has given up to arrive at the games with hopes for the podium. It fails to make that person a household name, because only triumph at the games will do that. Instead, it cheapens everything that athlete has given to his or her sport and promotes the consumer product to the spotlight.

People are going to buy dish soap and laundry detergent and all the other products they use regularly, regardless of whether Olympians are featured in the ads. I’m sick of the huge companies that make the world go around using the Olympics to sell their stuff. Frankly, they don’t need the help. What I’d like to see instead is feature spots that focus on athletes’ achievements, that share with the normal people at home on their couches what it’s like to be an Olympic hopeful, or the inspirations that have pushed our competitors to excellence. I’d be fine with a brief mention at the end that this spot on so-and-so was proudly brought to you by Tide, or Maybelline, or whatever, but the athletes should be by far the focus of Olympic-themed ad spots right now.

This post has been brewing in my brain for a few weeks now, building momentum as the ads come faster and more furiously. I expected to write a brief piece about advertising and sport, but here we are closing in on twelve hundred words, and I’m cutting my argument off now before I ramble into something as non-sensical as the crap I’ve seen in the commercial breaks lately.

Go Canadian Olympians! You are better than the big brand companies have chosen to make you appear lately. Best wishes for safe, successful games that allow you to showcase everything you’ve worked so hard for.

copyright 2012:

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