Another View

Have we forgotten the Trojan horse?

Charles Gordon March 1 1999
Another View

Have we forgotten the Trojan horse?

Charles Gordon March 1 1999

Have we forgotten the Trojan horse?

Another View

Charles Gordon

The commercialization of just about everything began the day the Berlin Wall came down. That event represented the triumph of capitalism over communism, which no one will dispute, and the right of corporations to do anything they please, which hardly anyone seems to dispute either.

At least not yet. The free market is in. Regulation is out. Taxation is discredited. Government spending is passé. And what corporations do, provided it is within the letter of the law, is OK, even putting advertising on boxes of Girl Guide cookies.

Is nothing sacred? The Globe and Mail felt constrained to comment. Here is its editorial: 'The Girl Guides of Canada are going to solicit advertising sponsors for their cookies. Sigh.” Although the Guides founder ‘‘would probably have harrumphed herself into a coronary over it, advertising isn’t immoral,” the Globe continues, “we are a culture as much defined by what we buy as what we believe. And thinking creatively, it is just possible that, in addition to badges in pet-keeping, fishing and canoe safety, future Girl Guides could receive awards for demonstrating mastery of the fine art of product placement. Still. Sigh.”

Could there be a better illustration of our modern dilemma? The Globe, as demonstrated by all the sighing, clearly knows that something is not quite right. But it cannot bring itself to say so, because “advertising isn’t immoral” and because the Girl Guides are responding to market forces that are, by definition, good. Still. Sigh. This is not the only example of cherished institutions entering into partnerships with the corporate world. There is the well-publicized relationship between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Walt Disney. There is the Walt Disney Co.’s involvement with Canada Post, which issued a series of stamps featuring a Disney character.

More recently, there is a peculiar relationship between a doughnut company, the Canadian armed forces and the minister of national defence, as illustrated by a Tim Hortons commercial aired during the Super Bowl game. It shows the minister’s limousine pulling up beside a Canadian Forces ship and several cases of Tim Hortons coffee being unloaded from the trunk for the coffee-hungry crew. This is likely to become a trend. Explained a Forces public affairs officer: “Next time I want to put out a brochure on a navy ship, I’m going to try to track down some company that’s willing to put its logo on the back and cover the cost.”

No money seems to have changed hands here, but are we, the Canadian public, ready for the idea of our armed forces being sponsored? Well, we know how strapped the armed forces are, and how much demands are already being placed on the taxpayer. If a cor-

Only on rare occasions does someone dare to suggest that even free corporate gifts come at too high a price

poration wants to help out, where’s the harm? That’s the conventional logic. Still, sigh.

Further examples are all around. Some are almost too familiar, particularly in the world of sports, where corporations are able to attach their names to anything that moves, not to mention skis, skates or drives. We take for granted the advertising on the boards in hockey arenas, or on the uniforms worn by tennis players and race car drivers. Rare now is the tournament, stadium or big game that does not have some corporation’s name on it. And now Girl Guide cookies. Next: the northern lights.

Can we do anything but sigh at this corporate invasion of our public and private spaces? Well, sigh. To legislate bans would be in violation of many fundamental human rights. And that’s assuming that the political will to take such action existed, which it doesn’t.

The answer lies, as it usually does, with us as individuals. If we protest and make a noise, things can happen. The Nike corporation came to Ottawa last year to offer a free gymnasium floor, then withdrew its offer when city councillors asked questions about the corporation’s record in the Third World.

Continuing attempts by corporations to get their names into schools have also met with resistance. The most recent example involves a school being offered a satellite dish and television monitors in classrooms, on which students are shown 12-minute news broadcasts that include two to 2% minutes of commercials.

It is funding cuts, of course, that increase the appeal of such proposals. The school (or the city, or the hospital, or the team) gets some equipment it would not otherwise be able to afford, virtually free. Only on rare occasions does someone dare to suggest that virtually free is too high a price. But, in the case of the schools, that has happened in the past, with groups of parents and educators being able to convince departments of education to look gift horses in the mouth. That could work again, and it wouldn’t hurt either to do some serious lobbying against funding cuts.

More direct approaches can work, too. Corporations are sensitive about their public image (otherwise, why spend vast sums to be just above the elbow on the left sleeve of a race car driver’s jacket?) , and will respond to letters of protest. A smart corporation president is like a smart politician—able to recognize when the mail, be it snail or e-, represents a segment of public opinion that it would be risky to offend. The president of a company thinking of putting the company logo on either the vanilla creme or the chocolate mint, would certainly think again after receiving some personal letters urging him or her to take another advertising approach.

If we want to stop the commercialization of everything, if we want corporations to keep their names to themselves, then we have to let them know. A sigh is just a sigh.