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September 18, 2009

Misogyny in Athletics, Brought To You By Pepsi Max

Product placement has been sanctioned on British commercial television, but apart from Loose Women getting Ryvita all down their blouses and Jeremy Kyle sending belligerent guests out through the Pepperami Trapdoor, how will this affect TV?

Will product placement devalue a programme? Will it affect editorial control? Of course it will. Not every time, of course: when Peggy Mitchell comes back to the Queen Vic with Tesco bags full of shopping, that will be fine; but when Magners pay six- or seven-figure sums for the guys from Hustle to celebrate their latest shenanigans with a cool pear cider over ice, it will be blatant, laughable and will undermine the whole show.

I saw one commentator say that nobody notices that all the cars in Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane are made by the same company; well I notice, and it's horrible. Also this defence sidesteps the problem, which is that product placement (or product integration as the Americans creepily call it) relies on subtlety, and so reactions here where it is still an oddity cannot be compared with America, where it is not.

The lead picture for this story in most newspapers is an image of the American Idol judges’ desk, with bright red Coca-Cola glasses in front of the judges. When I look at the picture, I can’t look away from the glasses, and a voice in my head shouts, ‘Look! They’re subliminally advertising Coke on telly! Look!’ I can’t even describe the judges, as far as I recall it’s just Simon Cowell and two reclining glasses of Coke.

In Britain, product placement will always stick out. UFC fans will know well the exclamation, ‘Here’s your fight replay, brought to you by Bud Light: The Difference is Drinkability! And in association with Harley Davidson: The Only Motorcycles Worthy of Being in the Octagon!’ There’s only one thing which can make that quote sound more ridiculous, and that would be a British accent. For the Americans, the Flintstones could stop and light up a cigarette in the ad break (it’s on YouTube); for us, someone complained when Robbie Williams appeared on Top of the Pops wearing a Nike T-shirt.

But are endorsement and promotion so foreign to us? Today the celebrity-led advert is so ubiquitous that there’s no Chicken-In-The-Air-Deckchair-Up-Your-Nose random marriage of product and celebrity that would really be a surprise. Multimillionaire Dragon’s Den runt Peter Jones and Sure. History's second-best footballer Pele and Viagra? Of course. The Stephen Fry/Paul Merton Direct Line advert almost challenges you to criticise its woeful patter. Who would dare, when (hushed tones) Stephen Fry does it?

At some point, we’ve decided that the intrinsic moral compromise in endorsements simply doesn’t matter enough, and I suspect that it was about the same time as getting yourself on the telly by any means necessary became paramount. Perhaps Pele and Peter Jones have some altruistic motives, but I don’t know what the Merton/Fry excuse is. The simple fact is that they’re all in the business of selling themselves, and sometimes that’s not pretty.


Modern athletes, however, have always been in the business of selling themselves. All but the very best are constantly looking for that next sponsorship deal in order to secure their future for another few seasons. This is probably the way it has to be, because the alternative is socialised elite athletics and everything we can do to discourage the “our boys” mentality should probably be discouraged.

Athletes’ self-promotion has been the norm for a long while but it really came to the fore in the World Championships in August, in which practically every athlete except Tyson Gay attempted to catch the advertisers’ eye with their own little Usain Bolt swagger. The camera panning across the start line before each race quickly started to resemble the moment in Total Wipeout where the contestants get about three seconds in which to sell themselves to the nation, and due to constraints on time and upbringing usually end up looking like gits.

Personally I find it irksome and unnatural (the pre-race swagger, not Total Wipeout, for which I would reserve far stronger adjectives). If runners didn’t need to mentally focus in the thirty seconds before a race starts, why the hell have they all been staring blankly at the track pre-race for the last fifty years?

For better or worse, this may become a mainstay of elite athletics, but what can’t be allowed to endure is the ruthless misogyny that this culture of self-promotion predicates. ‘The beautiful face of the 2012 Olympics,’ Hazel Irvine intoned as she introduced Heptathlon World Champion Jessica Ennis. Irvine should be ashamed, but then so should every single reporter who feverishly and leeringly salivated over Ennis’s appearance in the days following her win.

I’m not going to say that being pretty shouldn’t matter, that’s naive, but she’s a sodding sportsman. The day after Ennis’s victory, not a single one of the major newspapers referred to her being, relative to height, one of the greatest high jumpers in history (man or woman), but all had a nice long perv over her looks. It’s no wonder then that Ennis’s teammate, Kelly Sotherton, revealed in a recent interview that 99% of female athletes on the starting line are wearing make-up. How diabolical it is that an environment has been created where that is the norm.

The landscape that surrounds celebrity, self-promotion and fickle irresponsible reportage is just so complex and oxymoronic. Last month Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl abducted on her way to school and kept in a basement for eight years, released an impassioned statement saying that she still does not feel free because the press won’t leave her alone. They camp outside her house but, unbelievably, when she speaks to them they write that she is brazenly courting publicity.

This story is made much more complex because after her rehabilitation, Kampusch did embark on a brief TV career. Some claim that this makes her fair game because she seeked the limelight, which is a statement so unempathetic as to be downright sadistic. Kampusch also characterised the public's expectations of victims of crime as ‘astonishing’. If victims tried to hide away, she said, they were faced with the extraordinary accusation that the public had the right to know what had happened.

Therein lies both the incentive for product placement and the danger of self-promotion on television. We watch on demand, we vote people off, and we start to feel as if television is there to serve us and we downright expect it to furnish us with whatever we want. Product placement subverts our cynicism to the medium by integrating the product into the show; but self-promotion through endorsements involves a problematic tacit acceptance of this disposable, servile machine. Accepting this landscape makes you a part of it, and soon the viewing public feel as if they have a right to your celebrity and can do with you what they please. As Eminem put it, 'We're the ones who made you'. Consequently when the press come to dispose of you, the public feel nothing at all.

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