“This is beyond baseball” gets the thumbs down

Russ Smith of Splice Today takes issue with MLB’s “Beyond Baseball” ads:

If you follow games on ESPN, Fox, TBS, MLB.com or any number of local broadcasts, there’s a ubiquitous television commercial, a branding spot for MLB, alternately featuring Ryan Howard and Tim Lincecum, that flirts with vulgarity. The advertisement featuring the Phillies’ slugger is the worst: it opens with a pictorial tribute to his parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, and goes on to say how this has shaped Howard, so much so that it resulted in his lifting the World Series trophy last fall. “This is beyond baseball,” is the tagline, and if you can figure out the connection between the men and women who died or risked their lives during that pivotal turning point in American society and the game of baseball, your imagination belongs in the Smithsonian.

I’m sure I’ve seen it, but I tend to mute and generally not pay attention to commercials, so it’s not registering with me at the moment. From the sounds of it, though, it does seem to go a bit too far, don’t you think? Though I’m something of a traditionalist who falls for old footage and throwback jerseys, even I’ll admit that baseball already pushes the envelope when it comes to mining its own history for promotional effect. Mining non-baseball history for that same purpose just doesn’t pass the smell test for me, even when there’s a tenuous baseball connection.

I agree even more with Russ’ larger point about it being a misguided endeavor to make heroes out of highly paid entertainers the way these spots do. Aren’t most of the silly distracting problems surrounding baseball attributable at least in part to the disconnect between the reality of baseball and its players on the one hand and the altruistic and even heroic ideal society has ascribed to them on the other?

Money is a big issue because heroes playing boys games shouldn’t demand to be paid so much. Steroids are a big issue, in part at least, because athletes are supposed to do more than entertain us. They’re supposed to represent some mythic ideal and all of that. Owners and cities get into all kinds of misguided financial deals because someone — maybe everyone — is of the mistaken notion that teams are public trusts or institutions as opposed to a going and largely portable business operation, and all of that is a function of history too. If baseball started today, half the teams would probably have some sort of corporate branding or something as opposed to a localized identifier like “Houston.”

It’s not like baseball is ever going to be able to slough off its historical baggage when it comes to promoting itself even if it wanted to (and it shouldn’t want to, because there are some great bags in there). But man, I wish it could at least try not to weigh the game down so damn much all the time.

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  1. J.W. said...

    A little mathematical memo to Selig and MLB’s exec’s in charge of branding/advertising.

    MLB = Major League BASEBALL

    Beyond Baseball = not BASEBALL

    MLB (not=) Beyond Baseball


    Beyond Baseball = Beyond necessary.

  2. YankeesfanLen said...

    Well let’s just wait a minute and analyze how not only baseball but politics brings nostalgia melancholy and any other emotional force into play for the promotion of it’s own benefit.
    Baseball should rightly use it’s hook- the long history of the National Passtime to further it’s own legacy and has rightly used Frank Robinson and other trailblazers to emphasize this.  Wasn’t it about the same time frame that Harry Truman finally de-segregated the military?
    All I see is marketing, more of which could potentially lead us out of recession, not tear at any moral values or unfairly take advantage of anyone’s accomplishments.  If anything, all governemnt institutions for years have stepped in to do THAT.

  3. Melody said...

    I’ve seen the ad more than once, and it’s always struck me as somewhat tawdry, to the point that my husband and I have made jokes about it when it comes on.  I think it would be one thing if it were Howard himself who was involved in Civil Rights, but his parents?  What does that have to do with baseball?  There’s really no connection made in the ad itself, and no real justification for mentioning his parents’ activities at all.  It’s not that I think it’s impossible for MLB to make connections of this kind, but this ad does a really poor job of it.

    @YankeesfanLen, I don’t really think marketing is all that benevolent.  I think the extent to which our society is structured around it is more than a little disturbing.

  4. Alex C said...

    The ads are linked in the article, FYI.

    The Ryan Howard one is silly when you get down to it, but who cares? The response of this article is completely over the top. I find this author’s moral superiority much more offensive than mlb’s stupid ad campaign.

  5. Real American said...

    The Howard ad is beyond dumb because it attributes what his parents did with the civil rights movement to Howard himself. As stated above, Howard wasn’t involved in that movement. Sure, some of his parents’ attributes rubbed off on the guy, but he isn’t a civil rights veteran. 

    But as far as baseball using civil rights, remember that civil rights movement used Jackie Robinson. He was a symbol for that movement as baseball was ahead of its time on that issue, even if it was well past due.

    The Lincecum ad is much better. It shows HIS story and how his father helped him become the great pitcher he is. That is part of the story of baseball – fathers passing the game onto their sons, etc. That’s a great ad in particular because it sticks to baseball (regardless of what MLB calls it.) Sure, it is a bit fluffy, but so what? It’s a branding ad.

  6. Brandon Isleib said...

    I’m assuming that Howard did this ad of his own free will.  If so, then to some degree he feels the connection.  I haven’t seen the ad, so any connection I could make is probably facetious compared to the ad, but if in theory Howard could have said “this doesn’t represent what my parents did” or “my parents object to this ad for the false connection it makes” and they wouldn’t have run it.  I could be missing something though.

  7. Russ Smith said...

    ALEX C: I make no claims at all of moral superiority. Rather, as a diehard baseball fan since the early 60s, I find this advertising campaign, which attempts to convey the daft idea that baseball is a noble calling, to be in bad taste. I’ve never begrudged the amount of money athletes receive; it’s an open market and they’ve worked extremely hard to attain a level of success. However, the implied connection between Howard’s parents’ worthy civil rights protests and his career is silly; it belittles that heroic chapter of American history.

  8. james mccarty yeager said...

    sez you: “Money is a big issue because heroes playing boys games shouldn’t demand to be paid so much.”

    allan barra had an interesting observation in the ‘village voice’ quite a few years ago. he wondered why it was said to be distasteful and scandalous of reggie jackson to demand so much money for playing baseball, but not offensive that a doofus like george steinbrenner had enough money not only to pay reggie jackson above market rates but a whole bunch of other players too.

    ballplayers are entertainers. but the baseball industry having started before the movies did, players still don’t get a percentage of the gross the way other stars do.

    management shouldn’t get a free pass on the too much money in sports problem. pro sports are really supported not by fans but by the tax code. that’s the real scandal, not player compensation.

  9. smsetnor said...

    I feel like it’s a bit of a reach to think that they’re putting what Howard does on par with what those in the Civil Rights did.  I think it just says this is where Howard comes from.  His parents learned so much in their experiences and taught it to their son, who in turn became a disciplined and productive member of society.

    Everyone complains about the athletes who waste there money and act like criminals, but this one celebrates a family that has it together and is linking the past with the present.  It says baseball can help teach these lessons.  Nothing wrong with that.

  10. brian said...

    Smith seems much more annoyed at the Howard commercial, not so much the Lincecum one. Why not just make that the focus, rather than mucking it up with digs at “Bud Selig and his yes-men” or MLB in general?

    I much prefer the NBA ads where they simply show a slo-mo highlight without a voiceover. Those ads are subtle and way more effective.

  11. brian said...

    “heroes playing boys games?”

    Which started first? Adults playing baseball in athletic clubs, or Little League?

  12. Adam said...

    I would suggest that whatever feelings of umbrage Mr. Smith might have at towards commercial result from his own inability to follow the narrative outlined in the advertisement. The link between the two events is that it takes more than physical strength to succeed as a professional athlete or to affect societal change; this is why the narrator states unequivocally that “Ryan Howard knows the TRUE meaning of strength.”

    Regardless of whether you think that that professional athletes are overpaid, the road to success as a professional athlete takes perseverance, courage, and the ability to accept personal failures and setbacks. (Recall that Howard spent ages 21-25 in the minor leagues despite significant success at that level.)

    The ad does not seem to be an attempt to exploit the American civil rights movement; it is a tribute to Howard’s parents for passing virtues such as the above on to him. A more informed reading of the ad would be:

    1. Ryan Howard’s parents possessed the strength of character to do a very courageous thing.
    2. Ryan Howard’s parents passed this strength of character down to him.
    3. Ryan Howard reached the pinnacle of success at his profession as a result.

    Of course, Mr. Smith’s preemptive response to such an interpretation is that “[my] imagination belongs in the Smithsonian.” Perhaps the reason that I am dismissive of his opinion is that he is dismissive of mine.

    In closing, I would like to note that I am neither defending the ad nor judging it to be in poor taste. I am merely stating that Mr. Smith’s opinion does not stand up to critical review. As such, the article is at best worthless – and at worst, maliciously ignorant.

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