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By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
It's easy to shoot fish in a barrel (or so I've heard), it's easy to pick on the skinny kid (as I remember all too well), and, of course, it's easy to slam lame sports ads (as this Page 2 extravaganza demonstrates).
But as a "wiry" guy who likes his fish darting free and wild through the clear, cool waters of Big Two-Hearted River, I say we ought to give the ads a chance. I say there are subtle pleasures to be had in them ... if we only know where to look.
Such as, you ask?
The human touch: All too often our sports heroes are larger-than-life characters who fire thunderbolts and wage epic battles in a magical world somewhere out at the far reaches of our imaginations. But in these ads the gods are made mortal. More than mortal, they're made goofy, common, clumsy, unskilled and inarticulate. Look at Terry Bradshaw -- he can throw a football like a he was born to it, but ask him to pitch calling plans, and every line is a dying quail, every gesture the hammy act of a desperate clown. And so it is that that we feel connected to our heroes in a new way. Where once we felt only devotion and admiration, our feeling for them deepens and broadens to include simple human emotions like pity and scorn, sympathy and contempt. It's sweet, really.
The pioneering angle: We are a hungry people, a people whose expansive vision is cast in the language of Manifest Destiny and the images of Armstrong on the moon. We do not sit tight. We are never satisfied. We want to, we must, know where the limits are and then we must push past them. These ads aid in our quest. Each one is a pioneering journey to some new outpost of bad taste and painful execution, each one a postcard from the edge of sorry. We once thought Ali curling his lip at a pack of roaches was as bad as it could get. Then came Dan Marino and Isotoners, and we knew new depths. And now, like passengers on a fantastic voyage to the hot, molten center of the planet Ugh, we know what it is to travel with the Page 2 Players to "The Ol' Fishing Hole."
The you-too-can-feel-superior thing, which goes a little something like this: You've been down. Sure you have. You've been way down. You've sold your plasma for cash on occasion -- no shame in that. You'd sell your soul like Robert Johnson at the crossroads if you got the chance -- who wouldn't? But no matter how low you go, they won't catch you wearing one of those logo-less blue Emanski caps, and hawking robotic throws and swings to the kids like they were magic tabs on a contact sheet. You've got your pride, by god.
The mystery factor: We wonder, who is it that saw Johnny Bench spray painting a bench all those years ago and said, "You know, I have a bench, and it could use some painting. Hey, I'll bet that paint Johnny Bench uses would do the trick"? And we ask ourselves, who is that moved now to use his Visa because George Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter take theirs out dancing? Are these people out there somewhere? Are they real? Do you know them? Is there a parallel universe in which these ads actually work? Is the universe in which we now find ourselves an infinitely more complex, diverse, freakish, and ultimately sad place than we had ever imagined? Are there things that passeth beyond all understanding, and is the mechanism by which lame sports ads move product one of those things that will never reveal itself to us but will rather make itself known only as a sign of, a portal to, the great unknown?
The traditional values element: Ours is a disposable culture and these are rootless, short-attention-span times, but take comfort in this -- when you watch Tiger pushing Buicks or big George firing up his grills, you're not just watching some painful modern-day shilling, you're also tapping into a deep, rich vein that goes way back, you're studying your history is what you're doing, you're paying tribute to the elders, like Jim Palmer in Jockeys, Joe Willie in hose, and The Mick in Haggars -- guys who knew from shilling, guys who shilled in simpler, more innocent times.
The respect component: Good ads, clever ads, sophisticated and smart ads, these things wash over you like a gentle rain, they cruise by you like a bullet train, they work their money-grubbing, brand-building magic on you in subtle, subterranean ways. Like thieves in the night, they prey on you. Like a mickey in your drink, they course through your veins undetected, and the next thing you know you're naked and dancing on the tabletop, hankering for a beer, itching for some new sneakers, wishing you had more money to spend on something you're sure will make you feel younger, cooler, more appealing to the ladies and impressive to the guys.
Sports ads -- think of Raffy swinging for Viagra, for example -- respect you too much to be that sly. They don't do the misdirection or the loose association thing. They come at you straight. Here's a famous guy, they say. And here's a product. The famous guy thinks you should try the product -- whaddya say? Fancy-schmancy ad execs on Madison Avenue and hip concept teams at Chiat Day will tell you this approach is too clumsy. They'll say you're too savvy and sophisticated for this approach. They'll talk to you about value of irony and the cool of a cool affectation.
Raffy & Co. cut through all that muck to this: Are you interested? If you're interested, pony up. If not, keep walking. They're tired of the song and dance. And be honest: You are, too.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.