There was a time when I was in my 20s and the Internet was not the resource it is now that I was still in the habit of watching the evening news on one of the three major networks, as had been the tradition in American homes going to the 1950s.
I knew I was acting out of my demographic doing this, because of a quiet tug of war I would fight with my college roommate over the one television we had in our dorm room. We both tended to get back from classes at roughly the same time on most days. If I got back first, I would claim the TV and watch the evening news. If he and his girlfriend got back first, they would watch a "Cheers" repeat. I've never been one to just watch the television if I didn't have a specific reason to be watching it, so if they got their choice, I would read or do my homework or pursue some other activity, whereas if they found me watching the news, they would settle in and watch, partially because they just liked being anesthetized by the screen, partially so they were poised, vulture-like, to claim the box once I was done.
One day, as the news was going on, my roommate's girlfriend raised her hand to ask me a question. "Yes, Simone?"
"Who is that guy who is always on TV?"
"That's the president, Simone."
So, I had the sense that I was out of step, though that was nothing new. This was driven home for me in the mid-1990s when the commercials on the evening news began to skew older, I mean way older. Every ad was about coloring the grey out of your hair or regrowing hair that wasn't there at all anymore, correcting erectile dysfunction, signing up for end-of-life care or insurance, and padding your underwear in case of incontinence. It was easy to get the sense that the networks' research suggested that the age of the average viewer was about 75. This may have been accurate, but the cumulative weight of the messages was a tremendous turn-off and undoubtedly contributed to my decision to, well, turn it off and get my news by other means.
Baseball is getting to that point. Keep in mind that as a two-time cancer survivor, I'm a bit sensitive to reminders of my condition at otherwise innocuous moments. I spend quite enough time thinking about tumors and the risk of metastatic disease to want to have the subject placed in front of me during the half-dozen pitching changes that typically take up the last three innings of a ballgame. Yet, in my area of the country, the New York City metro region, commercials involving death, disease, decay, and mortality far outnumber those for Budweiser.
The proliferation began with the Michael Bloomberg administration's war on smoking, a laudable cause but one which nonetheless does not require plastering every change of sides with images of diseased lungs, people who have lost limbs due to circulatory illness, and testimonials from people who speak through a hole in their throats. It rapidly expanded to a series of commercials for hospitals that includes narratives of near-death experiences, concluding with the tagline, "St. Ralph's Hospital didn't just give me back my life, it gave back the life I love to live."
I was a 46-year-old woman in Olympic-level condition. I was getting ready to run my third triathlon of the week when I felt a sudden explosion about midway up my abdomen. It turned out I had suffered from SPD, spontaneous bladder decompression. My kidneys stopped working and my heart exploded -- total myocardial infarction. I was in a coma for three days. I was taken to St. Ralph's, and they did something with a machine that has these spoon attachments and I woke up just fine, in fact, I'm in better shape than when I was in college. They didn't just give me back my life... they gave me back the life I love to live.
First of all, unless you were suicidal before you nearly checked out, I assume that this is the life you love to live. Second, as a non-triathlete likely sitting on my couch for the fourth hour of the evening and possibly polishing off a pint of Ben & Jerry's, I don't need to know that even people in great condition have massive heart attacks. It's kind of a buzz-kill, you know? More to the point, I have never understood the purpose of such ads. I've had enough unplanned medical procedures to know that they don't usually arise through choice. That is, your doctor says, "Son, our tests show you need a headectomy." Maybe you do a little shopping at that point just to make sure the surgeon he recommends doesn't have any drunk driving conditions or the hospital he's affiliated with doesn't have a history of hiring killer nurses or consistently removing the wrong leg during amputations, but you basically do what's directed so you can get the cancer out or the bone braced or the tear repaired.
For something with a longer time frame, a problem that you can get corrected next week or next month without altering the outcome, you might shop around a little bit more, but you're not going to sit around and wait to be persuaded by advertising. You're going to go with the provider who has the best record you can find, not the one with the best commercial. Besides, in that situation you really have to hope that a hospitals ability to resuscitate the nearly dead isn't going to have any relevance to someone going in to have their hernia tucked in.
You may like or dislike Obamacare, but regardless of your side in that debate, it seems clear that an incontrovertible indicator that our national health care system is screwed up is that hospitals have the disposable income to run ads like these during baseball games.
More than that, though, so much morbidity just detracts from the joy of watching the game. Even though my job requires me to spend a lot of time consuming sports on television, when I do so I try to maximize my time, ignoring the commercials to read something useful or work on my next column. Still, the constant drumbeat of death tends to break through the barriers I have put up; even if I mute the sound, the picture of a blackened lung still somehow catches my eye at least once a game.
Broadcasters, including team sports networks, want to make every dollar they can. Still, we know that there are ads that they will turn down. Even if you have the cash to run a promotion with an explicitly political viewpoint, they might eschew the spot. Similarly, teams would not want their brands associated with pornography or other materials that their fans might find distasteful. Somehow, though, death is an acceptable option. If you think about it, though, these commercials are the ultimate pornography. If porn is material without artistic merit that exploits our base instincts, what could be more base than the fear of dying? In America, dying is more socially acceptable thing to do than acknowledging sex, so the existence of these ads rather than those for the Internet's most prolific genre is not unexpected, but really the difference is only one of perception.
In the end, these ads may say more about what Major League Baseball and its advertisers think of as baseball's main demographic. If they thought the game's audience was made up of vital 18-year-olds, we'd be seeing commercials that matched their interests, not those that sought customers in the market for a good brain tumor therapy.
When I was a kid, every Yankees home run came with a beer commercial. As soon as the ball went over the wall, Bill White would joyously intone, "Hey, Don Mattingly! This Bud's for you!" Now it seems like, "Hey, Robinson Cano! Your bile ducts are clogged!" would be more appropriate. Is that really the kind of association Baseball wants to promote?