April 14, 2014

Guest Post: military propaganda at sports events reaches new extremes: continuous recruitment ads at baseball games

A guest post from my partner, Laura Kaminker, wmtc:
I've recently returned from a lovely trip to Boston, filled with so many of my favourite things: friends, family, books, and baseball.

I love Fenway Park, and I'm always happy to be there. On this trip, we saw three great games, two of them wins, so I was thrilled. The games were marred by only one thing: nearly constant propaganda for the US military. This is not an exaggeration.

Throughout Fenway Park, as in many sports venues, there are monitors showing a TV feed of the action on the field. Right now, between innings, the Fenway Park monitors show a continuous feed of advertising for the United States Army. During the game, the ads continue on a sidebar beside the action.

Let that sink in a moment. The constant advertising crammed into every moment of the ballgame, and the constant linking of sports and the military, are now joined in this doubly offensive development.

There is something particularly Orwellian about watching a baseball game while a constant stream of silent images of war and military run in your peripheral vision.

I gathered from the brief branding displays that the ad feed is supplied by Access Sports Media. According to its website, Access Sports Media
provides advertisers cross-platform solutions engaging passionate fans in sports venues nationwide through digital out of home, social media, mobile, and in-venue sponsorships. Access Sports reaches more than 110 million viewers annually through a national footprint of 200 sports properties and a digital network of over 20,000 screens across professional, minor league and college sports.
Its list of clients includes many major corporations, a few specific products, and - listed first - the US Army.

The Army ads themselves stem from a campaign written about here in The New York Times, called a "reality" theme without a trace of irony. Of course, it bears little resemblance to reality. There are no bombings, no destroyed villages, no torture prisons. No amputations, no traumatic brain injury, no alcoholism, no domestic violence, no suicides.

The ads are built around the slogan "Army Strong": "There's strong, then there's Army Strong". This is a particularly good sell for a Boston-area audience: after the Boston Marathon bombing, the city rallied to a cry of "Boston Strong". The Times article notes that the ads are
an example of what is known on Madison Avenue as a program-length commercial or infomercial. Once the province of gadgets peddled with hard-sales entreaties like, "But wait, there's more," such longer spiels have been embraced by well-known brands like AT&T, Bing, Chase and Teleflora, along with a number of automakers.

Program-length commercials are becoming more popular as part of a trend known as content marketing, sponsored content or branded entertainment. The trend is meant to counter the growing habit — particularly among younger consumers, like the target audience for the Army, ages 18 to 24 — of ignoring traditional forms of advertising.
The "Army Strong" ads at Fenway are a barrage of quick-cut images emphasizing camaraderie and bonding, toughness and strength, dirt and grit, and stirring patriotism. Men (I saw no female soldiers in the ads, although there might be one somewhere) worked hard and played hard, always together, often dirty, but always serious and strong. In a world where career choices often involve life behind a desk or tethered to a computer, the men in these ads were running across rugby fields, rappelling down snow-covered mountainsides, parachuting out of airplanes, and using lots of exciting-looking equipment.

Only two quick images gave any hint as to why so many men are running, rappelling, shooting, and seeing the world through night-vision goggles. In one image, a woman in a hijab slides a slip of paper in a ballot box. In another, a group of soldiers sit in a circle in a tent, listening to a traditionally-dressed Afghan man (or, I should say, an actor dressed as one). What's the caption here? "How many weddings did we bomb today?" "You take the oil, we'll keep the heroin"? Or maybe just "Me smokem peace pipe."

As both Allan and I have written about before (here, here, and here, for example), there is already a huge amount of military propaganda inappropriately linked to sports events. The Boston Red Sox and the many other teams that contract with Access Sports Media - a list is here - now take the trend to new extremes.

I wrote this to the Boston Red Sox. If you are a sports fan who finds this advertising offensive, I hope you will speak up to your team's management, too.
I am a Red Sox fan who lives out of town. I am able to enjoy games at Fenway about every-other year, at best. I love Fenway Park, and thus, when I attended three games against the Texas Rangers last week, I was extremely disheartened to be subjected to continuous military recruitment advertisements.

Many young people, especially those from low-income families, believe what they see in the United States Army's ads and enlist, only to find the reality gravely different. Of course, who would ever sign up if the ads showed the truth? Amputations, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder; rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, skyrocketing suicide rates.

By partnering with Access Sports Media to show these deceptive ads at Fenway Park, the Red Sox are complicit in that deception.

The Red Sox Foundation promotes the "Run to Home Base," which raises money to "provide much needed services to local veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan . . . with combat stress disorders and/or traumatic brain injuries". At the same time, the Red Sox are helping to ensure that more healthy young men and women will eventually need those services.

The constant showing of military propaganda during a baseball game is inappropriate and offensive. I hope the Boston Red Sox will reconsider the decision to run Access Sports Media's US Army recruitment ads during games.


John Frizzell said...

Nicely put, knowing the Red Sox owners political bent this sort of surprises me. In the end money triumphs over all, capitalism at its finest?

Maxwell Horse said...

I don't watch any sports aside from baseball, but I can't help notice the blatant jingoism (at least in the broadcasts) of ALL the games, including ones not covered by NESN. (Like when FOX does the playoffs.)

Of course it's not just stuff in the form of ads or videos. There's outright propaganda in the form of staged events that are intertwined within the games themselves:

Heartwarming reunions where family members are surprised by a returning soldier in front of the thousands in attendance at the stadium and the millions watching at home (so we associate warm and fuzzy feelings with military occupations), like the ending of "1984" had it starred Drew Barrymore.

Fighter jet flyovers to mark every special game. It's an unquestioned given. If it's an important game--military flyover. It's never jugglers. It's never the visiting cast of a hit Broadway play invited to perform. It's always military fly-overs. (And if those alternate suggestions I gave sound silly, I'd like to point out that they have about as much to do with baseball as military jets do.)

I think I've mentioned before the pre-show interviews with people "visiting" the game who happen to be in the military, and who always happen to be in their military uniform. I think I've made the joke that they must've been fighting a battle minutes before buying a ticket at the window, because otherwise it's hard to understand a reason for someone to show up at a game that way. (How about doctors showing up at games with latex gloves on and one of those headbands with the circular mirrors? Like they had to rush to the ballpark immediately after performing a vasectomy.)

Some of that can be dismissed as simply paid-for propaganda. But what is harder to slough off is that whenever anyone (be it media figure or a player or anyone else you encounter in life) is asked to comment on the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, they always, always, always say that these people are heroes because if it weren't for them killing Iraqis, "we wouldn't have our freedoms."

This is an answer given so consistently that I genuinely believe this isn't part of some conscious paid-for campaign, but that people actually believe this. (Although one could make the argument that the paid-for propaganda is the reason this is the accepted truth.)

It's like people can't make any distinction between various actions by the military. The soldiers fought for freedom in WWII, so logically, that must mean that every single military action ever taken place is equally necessary and something to be championed. It reminds me of when George W. ran for president (the second time) and his speech-writers actually had the balls to have Bush remind people during a debate that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. (Because apparently that means that every Republican since then has mimicked Lincoln's exact same political platform. That's what Bush is best known for, I guess, his amazing relationship with black people.)

allan said...

At the end of the home half of the fourth inning of every home game, the Red Sox always highlight a specific veteran. It's called "Hats Off To Heroes" and it salutes those "who protect our way of life". At one of the three games, the announcer mentioned various tours of duty, including Egypt. (Why Egypt, you might ask? What is Egypt doing to threaten "our way of life"? ... Don't ask.) Needless to say, fans fairly leap out of their seats to cheer.

knowing the Red Sox owners political bent this sort of surprises me

But this is the military and honouring the men and women who fight our wars. It's not political at all. However, if you criticize it, THEN you are making it a political issue. Simply condoning it is normal.

laura k said...

A brilliant comment by Maxwell Horse, deserving of its own post on a blog or in a magazine somewhere.

The soldiers fought for freedom in WWII, so logically, that must mean that every single military action ever taken place is equally necessary and something to be championed.

Exactly. And always linked to "protecting our way of life". As if the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan were in any way, in any possible stretch of the imagination, threatening "our way of life". And as if bombing their homes, subjecting them to chemical weapons, and torturing them in prison, in any way protects and enhances our lives.

But this "protecting our way of life" trope goes unquestioned in the mainstream.

johngoldfine said...

The US military is protecting our way of life if one understands that our way of life includes "bombing their homes, subjecting them to chemical weapons, and torturing them in prison...." These actions are what we do, what we like, what we need, and what we protect.

Pious, self-congratulatory sadism is the American Way.

allan said...

wmtc is cited in Dave Zirin's latest column: "Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the Tale of Two Anniversaries"