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WHEN COMMERCIALISM GETS OUT OF HAND . . .

SHARE WHEN COMMERCIALISM GETS OUT OF HAND . . .

Historians still disagree about when the commercialization of America got hopelessly out of hand.

Some say that it really got rolling when corporate sponsors fastened their names onto New Year's Day football bowl games. A revisionist view placed the tipping point of the decline many years later, when Congress voted to approve an 800-foot-high sign on the Cape Cod beach advertising the Cheeze Whiz National Seashore.No one had objected very loudly when Ford Motor Co. won a maintenance contract for all the bridges in the interstate highway system. Oh, there was a little grousing by malcontents who couldn't see the beauty of an illuminated Ford sign stretching across every bridge. But most folks liked the idea that Ford was saving them a tidy sum in highway taxes and so they didn't complain, not even when Ford's market share climbed above 80 percent.

Nor was there an uproar when Heinz grabbed exclusive rights to distribute their food items in all automatic teller machines at every bank. Many people liked Heinz products, the banks had reasoned, and might tip their business to those that offered free food samples along with their cash. Things began in fine fashion. Banks saw their ATM business soar, their customers seemed no more surly than usual, and the front office at Heinz was delighted. All this, however, was before the ketchup disaster at Fort Wayne.

There, one bank, a bit too eager for new business, had doubled up on the amount of ketchup given to each ATM customer. Instead of two individual servings of ketchup, the bank had experimented with four packets per customer. This was too much for the machines. They began to squash the little packets, which sent ketchup oozing into the gears. Before long, ketchup had seeped into the cash supply, staining hundreds of $20 bills and leaving patrons' hands uncomfortably sticky.

America's colleges had made a big thing of resisting commercialism, so it caused a flurry of excitement when Princeton University asked Pepsi-Cola to sponsor its commencement. Princeton saved a bundle. In return, Princeton granted Pepsi the right, starting with the Class of 2002, to emboss its logo on every diploma.

Others followed. Harvard broke new ground by getting companies to bid on printing the question sheets for final exams. Not only did this get the companies' names before thousands of hyperkinetic students, but it gave them the right to name the courses. Among the more popular offerings: "The Taco Bell History of the Mexican Revolution," "Minute Maid's Topics in U.S. Migrant Labor History," and "The Toyota Studies of Pacific Rim Trade."

The whirlwind swept across America's great national parks. It came about because visits to the parks had soared as city dwellers fled a surge in gun murders. The Park Service was broke and President North had refused to boost its budget. So it was either let in the private sector or shut the gates.

The park takeover began innocuously enough. The people from Prudential Insurance raised a fuss when they insisted on caging all the bears in Yellowstone, to be sure, and those flashing billboards for Anacin on the shore of Jackson Lake had not done much for views of the Tetons. But, hey, the company offers had been the only game in town. It was either go commercial or go bust.

Things truly began to heat up, though, when the Sherwin-Williams people announced a scheme for painting over the presidents' faces on Mount Rushmore to make them appear more realistic. Some 5,000 enraged historians marched on the Interior Department, demanding a halt to the sacrilege. But the Park Service showed that Rushmore attendance had soared, largely because of all those Americans raised on a TV diet of colorized movies. The painted faces stayed.

As one might have expected in that go-go era, corporations gleefully boosted their influence with politicians. This influence had already been immense, thanks to the hundreds of political action committees that could raise and contribute millions to political campaigns, all of it legal.

Yet this influence leaped when, at their national conventions in 2004, both parties had corporate sponsors that donated balloons, booze and rental cars. In return, each sponsor obtained four seats on the platform committee. Party officials said this was only fair, considering how generous the sponsors had been. By the time Congress gathered for its new session in January 2005, commercial influence had so infected our public life that nobody was surprised when Burger King banners bloomed on the House and Senate chamber walls. Nor was there heard so much as a "Tsk-tsk-tsk" at the presidential inauguration that year, when sponsors did up the Capitol dome in nicely alternating sweeps of plastic wrap and paper towels.

What did begin to command notice in those years was simply the fact that nobody cared. One institution after another, feeling itself under stress, had succumbed to corporate come-ons. Yet even as more museums, parks and concert halls fell into commercialism's embrace, and as state legislatures tumbled over each other competing to offer billboard space in their rotundas, most of the country couldn't have cared less.

You see, an entire generation had grown up watching blankly as public institutions, faced with public apathy, chose commercial salvation instead of suicide. They had not been wrong choices, necessarily. It was just that, in seizing the commercial life line, some institutions had sold out their founding premise: that they would always remain public.