Thursday, February 3, 2011

Toilet Bowl Sunday

Sunday is the big day. It’s the Toilet Bowl! (DIY’s annual counter-programming to the Super Bowl.) I may watch a little but I largely have given up on following sports after having my heart broken in 1986. (Think Boston Red Sox, Bill Buckner and a ball going through his legs.) The Big Game is much more than a sports contest between the Packards and the Steelers.

The Super Bowl will be watched by over 100 million Americans – nearly 1 in 3. With that much attention The Game has become the premier event for advertisers to launch new products. Companies spend more than $3 million per 30-second ad with Pepsi taking 6 ads. Consumers can even vote for their favorite ads online.

Advertising and television have a comingled history. In the late 1940’s there were just 180,000 sets manufactured. After the May 7 1947 inaugural “The Kraft Television Theatre” one 60 second ad ran. “McLaren’s Imperial Cheese, not advertised in any other medium except ‘Kraft Television Theatre,’ is enjoying a gratifying demand. Television viewers who are unable to purchase it at their local stores have called Kraft Foods Company in N.Y. to find out where they can obtain the cheese.”

Today we’re terribly sophisticated and we are well aware of being “sold.” It now takes 5 impressions for an ad to have an impact...not a purchase impact, but just a recognition factor.

The core of the U.S. economy is built around this premise: introduce consumers to a product or service and show them that they want/need/will benefit from it – and they will then engage and purchase. The cycle repeats. Even the most sophisticated and cynical amongst us are impacted – it simply works.

University of Kentucky's School of Journalism and Telecommunications found  that when people view Web advertisements, they store information in two different types of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory involves facts learned through conscious interaction, while implicit memory involves unconscious retention. Explicitly remembered information includes ad slogans, product benefits, and website addresses. In contrast, implicit memory might only come into play when external stimuli trigger concepts.

Barak Obama successfully used these techniques while building the “Brand Obama” in the 2008 Presidential Campaign.  In 1994 the “Harry & Louise” $20 million advertising campaign in opposition to President Clinton’s Healthcare reform successfully killed any chance of passage.

No matter what your political leaning is, others will spend huge amounts of money and efforts to change your mind. It works enough of the time that the cost and efforts self-justifies.

In American culture and society – the same pattern has emerged. Expose people to a product, and opinion, a philosophy and after a number of impressions there is a shift. Sometimes that shift is tangible in terms of people lining up to buy a product, service or to vote for somebody. Sometimes that shift is less tangible but has an overall impact because it is absorbed. What is clear is that speech has an impact.

Free speech is the cornerstone of America – it’s the First Amendment because the founders felt that it was the most important guarantee in a fledgling democracy. In recent weeks we’ve seen people in Tunisia, Egypt and now Jordan up-end their countries for this right that we often take for granted. Speech is protected here because it’s powerful and effective. The right to speech unites Americans.

In January GLAAD asked CNN to stop inviting “anti-gay” guests.  The nonprofit organization that “amplifies the voice of the LGBT community” said that whenever a gay issue was up for discussion the network would bring somebody on who was anti-gay rather than bringing on somebody who was anti-the-issue. The distinction is important, accurate and powerful. When debating the issue of Gays in the Military – is the discussion best between somebody who supports gays and somebody who hates gays OR between an advocate for equality in the military and somebody who believes that military readiness would be impacted. One could be anti-gay and pro the policy or anti-the-policy and pro-gay. That, in fact, would be a much more interesting discussion!  GLAAD is right in its request – keep the focus on the issue, not on the characteristic.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (GLBTQ) people have been surrounded by speech that mocks, harasses and spreads inaccurate information.

People of some faiths have been surrounded by speech that is intolerant, disrespectful and lacks understanding.

Human temptation is to quiet or silence those whom we disagree or are offended by. We mustn’t succumb. A vibrant and engaged citizenry must debate those issues that we differ on. We must do so passionately. Respectfully. Rancor will exist, it’s naïve to think it wouldn’t. Speech is only truly free when it pisses us off.

In 1999 I was part of the producing team on a multiple award winning documentary (“Journey to a Hate free Millennium”) that addresses issues of hate through the stories of the Columbine murders, the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. and the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Fred Phelps the agitator from his Wesboro Baptist Church picketed the trial of Matthew Shepherd. Everybody wanted to silence their hateful, ignorant and evil signs and horrific chants. A group of young people who were part of the film created the Angel Project (that has been documented elsewhere and copied often). They dressed as angels – with large wingspans and sheets. The stood shoulder to shoulder and circled the block and sang. The Phelps group wasn’t silenced. They were surrounded by a force greater than they had ever faced before: love.

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