On Thursday, The Gatorade Company Inc.—a marketing shop with a secondary concern in the manufacture and distribution of sweetened salt water—released an advertisement featuring Derek Jeter, one of the worst players in baseball.
Judging advertisements by any sort of aesthetic criteria is probably a category error, but this was not a good advertisement. The conceit is that Jeter, who's near retirement after a long and distinguished career with the New York Yankees, decides on a whim to mingle with the proletariat, telling his driver to drop him off on a street near Yankee Stadium rather than driving directly to the private entrance ballplayers use. We see scenes of Jeter talking with and even touching ordinary people on the sidewalk and inside local businesses, and they brighten, the way people do when they're near someone famous whom they admire. Then Jeter heads into the stadium and, eventually, up to the field—ready, presumably, to take his final at-bat.
The idea here is obviously to show Jeter as a prince heading out among his people to show how much he loves them, and to permit them to show how much they love him in kind, and so to show, by the transitive property, how much they love The Gatorade Company Inc., which Jeter surely also loves, which has estimated annual revenues above $4 billion, and which also seemingly has the capacity to love. It loves Jeter in proportion to his estimated effect on annual revenues; it loves Jeter's fans in proportion to their willingness to purchase and consume Gatorade-branded products; and it loves that it loves, and can be loved. (Note the positioning of Jeter, onlooking baseball fans, and the viewer as subordinate to the Gatorade brand mark in the shot below.)
The actual advertisement doesn't quite work as intended, though. First, there's the choice of music—Frank Sinatra's "My Way," which not only draws an unfortunate parallel between late-era Jeter and the senescence of another limpid-eyed New York icon, but also reminds the viewer that Jeter was a vain and selfish player. (He refused, for example, to move off shortstop, which he played incompetently, when the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez.) Second, there's the fact that the conceit rests on the idea that Jeter has never once, over the 20 years he's played in New York, thought to take to the streets and talk to the commoners, raising certain questions about his supposed love affair with the city. Third, there's Jeter's visible discomfort, which may be the result of a bad actor's attempts to feign wistfulness—he's an actor in an advertisement here, after all, not the subject of a short documentary—but nonetheless lends the whole thing an air of unease. Add it all up and this is, at best, less kitsch than a set of allusions to a kitsch concept of New York as a big apple that never sleeps, filled with honest working people, Sinatra, "classiness," and so on. It's basically like watching Billy Crystal and Rudy Giuliani blow one another for a minute and a half.
There's nothing remarkable about this advertisement. It's an advertisement. (Even Jeter seems bored by it. "It didn't take long," he said. "I was out there for about 30 minutes.") What is remarkable, in its way, is how this advertisement was disseminated and received.
The Gatorade Company Inc. posted this advertisement to YouTube yesterday. Given that the advertisement, in its present form, is too long to run regularly on television, one can presume that it was edited and released with the online market in mind. One can further presume, given the mechanisms of the online sharing economy, that the marketing planners who designed its release did so in the expectation that journalists would do the hard work of making potential consumers of Gatorade-branded products aware of its existence. The journalists did not disappoint; calling them whores seems off only in that whores expect to be paid for their work.
Here is a partial list of journalistic operations that deliberately acted as pro bono marketers for The Gatorade Company Inc.—a subsidiary of PepsiCo, which takes in something near $70 billion in annual revenue—in connection with this advertisement:
Sports Illustrated ("Watch Yankees fans react as Derek Jeter takes a walk through the Bronx"); the Associated Press ("The Gatorade farewell to Yankees captain Derek Jeter is fantastic"); BuzzFeed ("RT if you cried watching this farewell Derek Jeter commercial Fav if you're a robot"); SB Nation ("Even if you hate Derek Jeter, this farewell ad will give you chills"); Bleacher Report ("Derek Jeter mingles with fans on his way to Yankee Stadium in this Gatorade ad"); Entertainment Weekly ("Don't waste any more time not watching Derek Jeter's farewell Gatorade ad"); Mashable ("Gatorade's ad with Derek Jeter will give you goosebumps, no matter what team you root for"); USA Today ("New Derek Jeter commercial may be the most New York thing ever"); my local ABC station ("Gatorade pays tribute to Derek Jeter in touching new commercial"); New York 1 ("Gatorade Ad Pays Tribute to Jeter's Way"); the New York Daily News ("Gatorade has an awesome new Derek Jeter ad. Watch it here"); Awful Announcing ("This Derek Jeter Gatorade commercial is perfect"); and Time ("This new Derek Jeter commercial for Gatorade will give you chills"). As of this writing, these efforts have helped bring the advertisement near three million views.
The embarrassing lines above are all merely from tweets these shops sent out; the actual articles and posts to which they're pointing are considerably more craven and ridiculous. There are, first, the ones that are just wrong. (Jeter no more stopped by Stan's to surprise some fans, as the Daily News has it, than Peter Quill and Co. saved Xandar from Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy; film is an edited medium, in which even a happy child's thrilled reaction to the presence of his favorite player is inherently fake because it's not real, and anyway a Gatorade advertisement is as reliable a guide to Derek Jeter's half-hour on the streets of New York as Battleship Potemkin is to the mutiny of 1905.) Worse than, that, though, you have the ones that are enthusiastically wrong.
BuzzFeed, for example, actually published this actual sentence, above a GIF of Jeter and a child smiling and under a headline claiming that this mediocre advertisement would make grown adults cry like small children: "It's an incredibly touching tribute to his legacy, even if it is sponsored content." Note that BuzzFeed is apparently incapable of using anything but a euphemism for the word "advertising" here, but also note that it—like many shops—finds itself not just in the business of pointing you to advertising, and not just in the business of vigorously arguing that you should like it, but of arguing that there's something actually wrong with you if you don't.
There's just nothing to this advertisement. "It was sort of a way to thank [the fans] for what they've meant to me," was the best even Derek Jeter could say of it, which, translated into English, is even more embarrassing. ("[Allowing random people to serve as extras in a Gatorade advertisement I spent a half-hour on] was sort of a way to thank [the proles] for [being potential consumers of Gatorade-branded products].") Still, whatever, right? This is capitalism working.
This is one line of approach here. Another would be to say that the way this advertisement was distributed was fundamentally evil. The entire point of journalism—the very thing that distinguishes it from the closely related fields of fiction and public relations—is that it presents the public with things that are true. They don't necessarily have to be important truths, of course, but they need, at minimum, to not be anti-truths, falsehoods fostered by a corporation that takes in $70 billion every year in service of selling a good no one needs and no one should want. To knowingly, deliberately pass on and endorse a falsehood—to claim that an advertisement made in service of selling sweetened salt water and that may as well be Rudy Giuliani-on-Billy Crystal pornography is something that should make anyone who understands New York and/or baseball cry—is to say that there is no point to the project of writing true things. The same is true of acknowledging that emotionally manipulative advertisements are not real and issuing approving notices of them anyway. The same is true of writing some second-order story about how the false claims made the corporation made in its advertising worked effectively. The online press stanning for The Gatorade Company Inc. is just an especially obvious part of a corrosive process in the media, the effects of which can be seen in everything from Jenny McCarthy's acceptance as someone with important things to say about vaccines to our drifting into yet another war in which we have no interests and in which there's no way to win.
If all this is so, though—and it is—it shouldn't be lost on anyone that this advertisement for Gatorade-branded products does express a very real and basic truth about Derek Jeter. He was an excellent ballplayer with a talent for doing exactly what his corporate sponsors told him to do. For 20 years, and all the way on through to the last days of his career, he chose to communicate with the ordinary people to whom he could at any time have decided to talk through the medium of commercial advertising. In the end, there is nothing that better expresses his legacy than a BuzzFeed post demanding that you cry over his brand positioning. Given every chance to show what he was like to people who loved and badly wanted to know something about him, he chose not to—at least, not without a brand working its way in. All along, now as then, Derek Jeter did it his way.
Picture by Greg Fiume/Getty