"Why do men watch football? Because they're bored with their lives. And wives. And it's a bonding thing. And one more thing -- it's because we love beer."
St. Petersburg, Florida
Symbiotic relationships developed between sports and corporate America and between sports and the mass media that created the media-moneyed monster of late 20th century football. The mass-marketing, spectacularization and mediaization of the football spectacle fed the game in a reciprocal relationship.
The NFL worked hand-in-glove with the major television networks to use TV as a means of not only socializing the American people into the role of football spectator but also to associate football with the consumption of products through commercials. Later, the NFL turned its marketing inside out to generate new products from its primary product, spinning off an unbelievably sophisticated system of licensed goods associated with NFL teams. All sports do this now, but the NFL was the first.
Which raises another marketing/consumption issue: Why do we wear or advertise our team on our clothing?
"Americans have been duped into wearing corporate labels as signs of status," says Dr. Jay Coakley, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "We pay $15.00 extra for a shirt that advertises Ralph Lauren or Adidas or Nike -- the person who designed it or made it or promoted it or whatever. The wearing of team insignias and licensed things are simply done to express your connection with a local group of people and a local symbol. It is significant on a collective level because it provides a rallying point for people. It provides a social access to others. If somebody has a Broncos hat on, you know that in addition to saying hello, you can also say one other thing and know that you'll have conversational access to that person."
Advertising messages on hats and clothes telegraph our interests, offering a way to connect with perfect strangers, like pinning a name tag on your lapel at an Elks convention. It may not lead to intimate connections but it can provide access to an urban environment otherwise characterized impersonally.
TV commercials during football games seek to reaffirm ideas about meritocracy and masculinity.
Advertisers on football games promote products where men make most of the consumption decisions, such as beer. Other advertisers include investments and insurance companies, especially insurance companies that sell policies to men who are the sole or major wage earners within their families and discover that their families are dependent on them. Isn't it up to them -- as responsible human beings -- to have at least a million dollars worth of life insurance?
Luxury cars fit into these notions of meritocracy, class relations, achievement and upward social mobility as being absolutely essential to a man's identity. Investment opportunities, luxury vacations and even tires are products for which men make the major family consumption decisions and they are products which are related to dominant definitions in masculinity and to the ideology of meritocracy. They are successful men's products.
Madison Avenue's message to football fans: If you buy these products you will be successful or if you already buy these products you must be successful.
"From what I know about advertising," Coakley says, "most advertisers don't think consumers are so gullible as to conclude that, 'If I buy this I'm going to be successful.' What they want to do is associate their stuff with the whole ideology of success so that people who become successful feel that they have to have these things to prove it."
There are, of course, different definitions of success for different men. Might Old Milwaukee's luscious Swedish Bikini Team drop in on my tailgate party because we happen to be drinking OM beer? Worth keeping an extra six on ice -- just in case. The Gillette theme runs through my head when I'm buying a new razor. Gee, that quarterback in their commercial -- the one surrounded by luscious babes -- looked a lot better groomed than I usually do. Maybe I'll get a better shave with a Gillette. Better something, anyway.
Football is unique because dominant definitions of masculinity are such that they make men very insecure. It leads men to compete with each other often in a cut-throat way.
"When you focus in on football," Coakley says, "you are seeing and listening to commentary that emphasizes that these people are the epitome of masculinity. People wouldn't play this game unless they were true men. This is what manhood is all about -- physical domination is crucial and a pecking order between men is very obvious. These people on the field are better because they can physically and effectively dominate another human being.
"So there is this notion on the one hand," he says, "that football is celebrating the power and privilege of men as a whole but it is also creating an ideology that leads men to compete with one another and, in a sense, to see their status in terms of how much they can dominate one another. It makes men very insecure about who they are as individuals. It makes them insecure in terms of how desirable they may be to women or how attractive they may be in the eyes of women. So when you get men liking football, you've got a bunch of people who are emotionally ready to hear messages that they can then take and turn into consumption patterns that will make them even more attractive or more manly."
Certainly corporate America uses football to peddle its wares. Apple launched its Macintosh computers during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. The advertising campaign received almost as much attention as the revolutionary new product.
"I can't consider anything that doesn't deliver," says Ann Winkler, advertising manager for Apple Computer. "I'd say it's best to be involved in something like football that people are involved with. Of course, I'm a football fan. I'd put anything on a Redskins game."
Gillette introduced men to its Sensor razor in 1991 during Super Bowl XXV. Sensor went on to become -- according to Gillette -- the most successful new shaving product ever introduced. Two years later, it debuted a line of men's toiletries as Dallas pummelled Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII.
And who could forget the sudsy annual Bud Bowl, pitting the computer-generated beer teams of Budweiser and Bud Lite?
Why do corporations find football to be such an effective tool?
"Fans are loyal to products that support the things they enjoy," Winkler says.
Corporations know this and also know that they are going to get a bigger audience advertising during football games than anywhere else. Those that can't buy TV spots buy radio. Or they spend big for stadium signs that will appear in the background during TV coverage. They sponsor replays on stadium video screens, put their names on blimps that fly over outdoor stadiums, buy advertising in programs and generally make their presence felt.
"We have a men's product," says Michele Szynal, a communications manager for Gillette in Boston. "On Super Bowl Sunday, the audience is men, men 15 and over, men who shave. Super Bowl has become the premium male sporting event. It delivers. We want to reach these guys and they're there, watching that game. Maybe there's a greater percentage of men who don't watch sports. But since there's a great percentage who do, we go with sports."
The next obvious question: Why is this advertising effective with men?
"The need to be important, successful, powerful, the need to win," says Dr. William J. Beausay, a Columbus, Ohio-based psychologist. "Advertisers are championing their products. If you look at all the beer commercials, they are going straight at the men. It's all macho. Anything you can do, I can do better. Whether it's cars or beer or successful people who are drinking their beer."
Football and alcohol go together like Mom, apple pie and baseball in the minds of many fans.
Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie says the video wallpapering of beer commercials and advertisements during football games acts as reinforcement to the inclined beer drinker. "It is like a great tapestry that they weave and it includes sucking on a can or bottle of beer while eating popcorn," he says. "It is almost out of character now if you don't merge with the projected scene of what a fan should be."
"Football is a tremendous asset in business," says the Atlanta-based computer software and voice mail salesman. "When you're trying to establish a rapport with somebody, when trust is a hurdle to get over, there's no better rapport-builder than sports. If somebody buys a new car, what are you going to talk about? Their passion. I sell products over the phone; most of my clients are out of town. If I've got a client in Manhattan, Kansas, I can virtually assume he's a big fan of Kansas State football and basketball."
Here's an example of Dreayer doing his thing:
"'Bob, how are you doing? This is Barry Dreayer with Front Row Systems . . . I notice you're in the Dallas area. Is the town still going crazy over the Super Bowl? . . . Yeah? . . . Well, I went to the University of Florida -- Emmitt Smith is in my will now. . . '
"Once you break the ice," Dreayer says, "the barrier is broken. If the guy in Dallas loves Emmitt Smith -- which he should -- we've got something in common."
Copyright 1993 Bob Andelman. Click here for copyright permissions!