They Want to Sell the Golden Gate Bridge

The history of transportation in the U.S. has been less about meeting needs than about creating them. From the “internal improvements” of the early republic, to the railroads, urban trolleys, and interstate highways that came later, development has been the object, more than serving the needs of people already in a place.  Urban trolley systems were built out to farmland. The railroads recruited settlers from Germany and Scandinavia for the lands they opened up.  (They described the Dakotas as a New Eden.)

The Golden Gate Bridge, which connects San Francisco to the Marin Headlands to the North, is a chapter in this same story.  For all its iconic glory, the bridge actually was part of a development push to the North. The authority that governs it includes members from counties all the way to the Oregon border.   One suspects that the main concern of those members is not the aesthetics of bridge design or the self-presentation of San Francisco.


It’s Official: Life is now a Stage Set for Ads

You may have read about the marketing campaign in Boston that turned into a city-wide fiasco.  An ad agency with the apt name of Interference Inc. deployed small electronic light screens with batteries and wires around the city to advertise a Turner Broadcasting cartoon show. Employees affixed the devices to bridge supports, the sides of buildings, even outside Fenway Park.  A transit worker saw one on a freeway off ramp, and thought it might be a bomb. (The cartoon images on the screens were not clearly visible in daylight.)

Bomb experts were summoned. Traffic was held up for hours. Reports came of other such devices elsewhere around town.  Before the day was over the city had spent over half a million dollars, officials say.  Now Boston Mayor Tom Menino is demanding compensation. Turner Broadcasting has apologized.   The media meanwhile is playing the story as a clueless officialdom that is out of touch with the hip new ways of “viral marketing”, which takes ads out of their traditional media contexts and seeks to imbed them the normal processes of daily life.


Who Decides Who’s Sick?

Back when, Ralph Nader used to ask college audiences, “Who defines what a problem is in America today?” Who decides that tired hair, say, is a problem of epochal proportions, while the decimation of species and the befouling of the air flit only episodically across the public screen, rarely long enough to change behavior in any significant way?

Nader was talking about the ability of the marketing industry to channel thought in the direction of problems for which commodities appear to be an answer. Rightward polemicists scoff at the notion that advertising actually could influence an independent and free-thinking people. They don’t explain why corporate leaders, “rational decision makers” that they are, would devote over a quarter of a trillion dollars every year to this purpose anyway.


Billboards in Space, Accomplices in Enclosure

The greatest ally of the corporate trespasser is our human tendency to forget.  So long as a violation lingers in the memory there is a possibility of doing something about it.  But when outrage dies, and along with it the memory that things could be different, then the deed is done and the enclosure is complete.

How many people today remember when streetcars traversed our major cities, until oil and automobile companies contrived to do them in?  How many think, when they peruse the offerings on commercial television, “Wait a minute.  Those airwaves are ours.” Not that long ago, people would be outraged at the thought of junk food ads and vending machines in public schools.  Now they are a new normal, and are greeted with a shrug.


Drug ads sell a problem, not a solution

It is an old saying in the advertising trade that you sell the problem, not the solution. That helps explain why the media today are awash with images of disease. Erectile dysfunction, depression, stress, attention deficit disorder, on and on – you can’t escape them and the sense of looming peril that they conjure up.

Politicians sell terror and fear; pharmaceutical companies sell disease. Every state and stage of existence has become a pathology in need of pharmaceutical “intervention,” and life itself is a petri dish of biochemical deficiency and need. Shyness is now “social anxiety disorder.” A twitchy tendency has become “restless leg syndrome.” Three decades ago the head of Merck dreamed aloud of the day when the definition of disease would be so broad that his company could “sell to everyone,” like chewing gum.


Agents of Distrust

The intelligence agencies of the former Soviet Bloc were more than means of acquiring information. Equally important, they were agencies of distrust. When people didn’t know who was an informant, their inclination to confide was to that extent diminished. The risk of challenging authority was multiplied many times. When the friend to whom you might entrust an anti-regime manuscript, or even just a thought, might be in the secret employ of that same regime, you would think many times before doing it.

Distrust causes people to retreat into cocoons of self-interest and survival; and self interest ultimately is the friend of the powers that be. The corporate economies of the West have produced their own version of this socially corrosive function. An example appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how the story begins:


A Captive Audience of Kids

Corporations seek to dominate space. First it was physical space, and now it is mental space – what is called, in marketing argot, “mindshare.” The political Right seeks to cut taxes to shrink the public sphere, or “starve the beast” in Grover Norquist’s phrase. Put the two together and what do you get? You get corporations laying claim to common space, and to the minds of those who occupy it.

The latest example is BusRadio, a company in Massachusetts that is going to install special radio receivers in school buses, so it can fill the airspace in them with ads aimed at kids. School districts starved for funds will get a cut of the ad revenues. BusRadio will get a captive audience of impressionable kids that it can sell to corporate advertisers eager to get inside their minds. The compulsory school laws will become the means to corral these captive kids and deliver them to the sponsors.


Willie Mays or AT&T

Before Elvis, before the Beatles, way before Michael Jordan, there was Willie Mays. Willie was new. He was cool. The face on his baseball card was coltish and fresh, not like the grim old guys of our fathers’ generation. His cap had a cocky peak; the brim curved down past his temples. We curved our little league caps like that. Late into the summer night, we practiced his amazing, back-to-the-plate catch in the 1954 World Series, as he raced into the depths of center field at the Polo Grounds.

That’s where Willie played, the Polo Grounds, in Harlem. The place actually started out as a field for polo. Newspapers called it the polo grounds, and over time the capitals crept in — the Polo Grounds. That’s how stadium names happened back then – from the ground up, as expressions of locality and place. Sometimes they came from family names of local owners, such as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Sometimes they came from the place itself, such as Boston’s Fenway Park.


It’s All in a Name

The news that a town in Texas has changed its name to that of a corporation, in exchange for free TV, made me think about my elementary school, which was named for a local man who died in World War I. I’m not going to pretend that I sat at my desk each day and pondered his bravery, as opposed to, say, the little League Game that evening.

But I still remember the awe I felt when I looked up at the plaque in the main corridor. Somehow the message penetrated my unruly mind, that I was supposed to be brave and unselfish, and to serve my community and my country, the way young Albert Edgar Angier had done.


Clark, Texas Has a New Name

In Scripture, the bestowal of a name was an event of great importance.  A name was an expression of character; and humans earned new ones in accordance with their inner growth.  Jacob, after he spent an entire night wrestling with his demons, and finally prevailed over them, became Israel.  His old name meant  “to seize by the heel.”  His new one, “God will rule.”

The places where such events occurred acquired new names as well.  Jacob called the place of his new insight Peniel, which meant the “face of God.”  Before that, when he had set his head down on a pillow of “stones” – that is, hard tormenting thoughts – and had dreamed of a ladder connecting him to the Highest, he called that place Bethel, which meant the “house of God.