Through the Trifocals

Are you tired of hearing announcers show bias in their sports reporting? Do you cringe whenever Dick Vitale beats the drum for Duke basketball? Illinisports says there is a method to the madness and hopes that understanding will help insure fairness and impartiality in sports broadcasting.

I have studied advertising and human behavior all my life. My family purchased our first television when I was three years old, so I have had the chance to see the evolution of television as a medium and the role advertising plays in its survival since its inception. At first, television just reported news and sports for the benefit of their viewers. But media owners have made more profit by giving people what they want to hear instead of more harsh realities. There has been a slow but sure change toward programming that insures profit over accuracy.

So I can't say I was surprised when I watched the Illinois at Ohio State football game 11/17/2001 and heard announcers Steve Levy and Todd Christensen continue to use the same predetermined story lines that favored Ohio State throughout the game even when it was obvious the Illini were destined to win. It made me realize finally that television had transformed itself from a medium that reported events to one that, at least on occasion, used events as an excuse to sell products advertised on their broadcasts.

Since this weekend's football game with UCLA will be televised, and since the announcers broadcasting the game will possibly appear to Illini fans to be partial to the Bruins, I feel it is an opportune time to discuss the realities of big time sports broadcasting. After all, there will be some frustrated Illini fans if we play well and yet appear to receive little credit for it. If that happens, it may not be accidental. Indeed, it may be part of a plan that is so creative and sublime that most people remain oblivious to its existence.

I have debated whether to share this in a column because there will be plenty of people who will strongly disagree with me. And it is a difficult subject to describe in ways that will be clear to the reader. But frankly, I am tired of hearing all the complaints about the prejudicial reporting of shills like Dick Vitale. There is a method to their madness; they are doing exactly what their bosses want them to do. I may not be able to change what is happening, but I hope to help people understand what is happening and why. With this knowledge, perhaps more of us can be responsible consumers and help to reverse present trends so that more fair and impartial reporting can occur sometime in the future.

Getting back to the Illinois-Ohio State game in 2001, star quarterback Steve Bellisari had just been suspended from the OSU team for driving under the influence of alcohol. His replacement was Scott McMullen, who was starting his first game ever. Obviously, this was a big story and deserved major attention, especially since the enigmatic Bellisari was coming off perhaps his best game ever and OSU now had to face upstart Illinois in Columbus with an untested newcomer at quarterback.

But in addition to this important storyline, the announcers had one more phrase they insisted on saying repeatedly. Namely, "The Buckeyes still control their own destiny." Once or twice, I could understand. After all, they were a legitimate challenger for the Big 10 Championship at the time. Ohio State fans would undoubtedly be appreciative of hearing that all hope was not yet lost, just as Illini fans would have benefitted from hearing that same phrase if the shoe was on the other foot.

However, the announcers continued to pronounce their same mantras throughout the game. It became almost comical to hear them, and I could laugh because we were beating the glorious Buckeyes' butts, 34-22, on their home field. But it was also clear that the announcers had been given these remarks as talking points that had to be stated frequently, and they were either unwilling or unable to create new story lines to support the great effort provided by an inspired Illini team.

The announcers ultimately became apologetic toward the Buckeyes rather than supportive of the Illini. It was as if there was only one team in the game, and one set of fans watching on television. The announcers acted as if the losing OSU supporters needed more reinforcement and encouragement than the Illini fans needed well-deserved compliments. One might think the reverse should have been true, given the long-term success rates of the two programs. That is, if fairness and accurate reporting were the goals.

In reality, this wasn't inflexibility by the announcers because I have seen it repeated frequently by other announcers reporting on other teams. I believe it was part of an organized and highly sophisticated plan. This game just made that plan more obvious than most because it didn't proceed according to form.

We consumers have been studied repeatedly over the years to determine who buys what products, and what program formats and advertising approaches are most conducive to stimulating our purchasing juices. What has been discovered is something of a trade secret, but since I do not work for any of the companies who utilize this knowledge to enhance their businesses, I have no conflict of interest in reporting some of their findings.

Not everyone who watches a football or basketball game buys products advertised on those broadcasts. In fact, I have learned to go into a mild trance or depart for the bathroom whenever commercials come on. After all, I have learned to distrust the content and agendas of said commercials, and I refuse to purchase anything just because I saw it advertised. But my independent purchasing habits are of no interest or concern to these large companies because I am in the minority. Rather, it is the people who listen more attentively when commercials appear who are most susceptible to the sales pitches.

Before I describe specifics of the behavior types who keep companies in business, please do not feel offended if anything I say applies to you personally. I will just be describing tendencies, and we all have at least an occasional tendency to be influenced by commercials, whether for better or worse. I have a feeling the people I describe most specifically won't be reading this text anyway, or they will be in complete denial and fail to see themselves in the description. But if I offend, I apologize ahead of time.

The buyers most attractive to the advertisers are much more likely to believe a distortion of truth than truth. We are talking about people who buy a hamburger after seeing a young woman sensuously eating said hamburger while gyrating seductively to a slow motion bull riding machine. Or, people who buy any product simply because an attractive person is seen in the commercial. Or, people who buy a particular liquor or vehicle because they somehow believe they will attract more sex by doing so. Or, people who pay more for "lite" beer that contains less alcohol and is thus cheaper to make. Or, people who pay more than average to wear apparel that has the company name engraved on it, providing free advertising for the manufacturer. Or, people who pay exorbitant sums for shoes made cheaply in foreign sweat shops just because some famous athletic hero has his or her name on it. Or, people who conjure up illnesses just to get their doctors to prescribe expensive pharmaceuticals seen on TV ads.

Why do you think there are so many phone solicitations, pop-up internet ads, and spam emails? Because they work! While some people become annoyed by them, others actually buy what the solicitors are selling, even when they don't need or want those products. Some people are so gullible they truly believe those emails supposedly from Nigeria and other third world countries will give them massive sums of money for helping with a phony business transaction. Others are convinced a person who plays a tough guy on television, movies or staged events can also protect their security in real life. And enough people want so badly to believe the spins of manipulative and photogenic politicians that honest people are unwilling to run for political office because they are convinced they can't win.

The people most susceptible to all these forms of advertising have much in common. They all are natural followers who need someone to help them with their survival needs. They willingly give up their personal power (and much of their money) to anyone who claims to want to help them. Rather than being responsible for their own survival needs, they would rather trust total strangers who say the right things. And there are numerous con artists and false prophets who are eager to manipulate these people for their own benefit.

Anyone who offers solutions to our survival needs has a chance to sell something to us. These needs are for survival of our genes through reproduction and survival of self through improved personal security. Thus, anyone who hints at sexual improvement, usually through subtle and seductive means, has a captive audience. Actually, I've seen one liquor store ad that reminds, "The more she drinks, the better you look", but most ads don't need to be anywhere that blatant to be effective. As they say, "Sex sells"!

Also, those promising to protect us from harm have our ear, whether they really care about us or not. Of course, it helps to make us fear for our survival first and then swoop in with offers of protection. But natural followers are usually somewhat insecure and concerned about their survival needs even if there are no immediate threats to their welfare. Big, powerful automobiles have always sold better than economy cars simply because personal protection and power are more important to a majority of people than concerns about long-term environmental or oil supply issues.

People who give up their personal power to follow others like to believe their leaders can somehow control the forces of nature, and this gets us back to our original premise. Teams or athletes who appear to "control their own destiny" are eminently appealing because we all know that Nature is a powerful force and not submissive to our self-interests. Thus, those elite teams and individuals who win most if not all the time are "heroes", and their winning gives relief to followers who can then pretend their world makes sense to them.

Ironically, anything that scares us is just as effective at making our minds susceptible to advertising appeals as anything that encourages us to feel safe and secure. In both cases, we can be programmed to buy products or concepts from those who invoke security concerns and then offer solutions to our problems.

Thus, elite teams are useful to advertisers even when they lose because the losing disrupts followers' personal security and scares them. This fear then makes the followers more susceptible to advertisements that reassure them in some way. With either winning or losing, elite teams and individuals are useful to help sell products in ways that logic and analytical thinking can never accomplish.

In the movie "Tin Cup", Kevin Costner's lead character is faring well in the U. S. Open, much to the chagrin of the TV director. The director is heard to state, "We need heroes, not some broken down driving range pro." That's right. Underdogs may be appealing to our good hearts, but predictable winners help us sell more products. Those who root for underdogs are already fairly self-secure, so they are less susceptible to advertising gimmickry than those looking for heroes.

Schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Duke (basketball), etc., are considered "elite" and followed on a national basis, much like the New York Yankees in baseball. When they win, those who root for them feel good about themselves and feel their personal security enhanced. When heroes' names are invoked repeatedly for the followers' benefit, they will buy most anything advertised because they are truly susceptible at these times.

Think of all the mantras used by ultimate salesman Dick Vitale in basketball. With great reverence, he conjures up names and phrases like "Duke", "Coach K", "Robert Montgomery Knight" (also known as "The General"), and "Duhon's ribs" for a reason. His bosses appreciate how effective he is at selling products because these names are like subliminal advertising that break down sales resistance among those who need heroes to follow.

Sure, Vitale is blatant. Sure he goes to extremes of obnoxiousness. But he keeps getting hired to repeat the same worn out phrases again and again. There IS a reason for works. To quote P. T. Barnum, "A sucker is born every minute." Nowadays, it is far more often than that.

Dick Vitale is the ultimate hero worshipper, and he is an apologist for all basketball players and coaches, as long as they preserve the game he loves. He will defend almost anyone, regardless of their mistakes and problems. So some of his spiel is just youthful enthusiasm and gushing hero worship. But he is also a master at helping his bosses make profit. Who better to understand a hero worshipper than a hero worshipper? He knows he is criticized for propping up Duke at the expense of other programs. He defends himself by saying they are always good, which is somewhat true. But he is also doing exactly what his bosses want.

Are you tired of hearing these Vitale mantras? Would you like more fairness? The only thing I know we can do is refuse to buy products from companies who encourage biased reporting. However, it is highly unlikely that we can convince the true consumers to change their ways because they would then need to find alternate heroes. And it is their nature to hold onto mediocrity rather than to risk losing that mediocrity for the unknown. That is simply too scary for them, and they won't cooperate. So don't expect to change the system by that method. But conscious consumers resistant to deception are the only ones who can prevent manipulative reporting.

When the TV announcers during the 2001 OSU-Illinois game kept repeating, "OSU still controls its own destiny", they were reassuring followers and thus selling product. And even when it was obvious Illinois would win, that same mantra was preferable to reminding followers that upstart Illinois might upend their conjured version of reality. OSU winning sells more product than Illinois winning, and OSU losing still sells more product as long as followers are reminded that it will only be a matter of time (and a resolution to the quarterback problem) before OSU wins again and the world is back to "normal".

Not all games are reported with advertising bias. The Northwestern-TCU game on ESPN the other night had few of the ingredients necessary for special advertising consideration. The advertising rates for that game were considerably lower than for a game involving an elite team. The total number of viewers was lower, and the opportunity to stimulate buying habits with an elite team was lacking as well. So the reporters simply reported on the action, which was plentiful.

However, a game on ABC between Illinois and UCLA is a different matter. Chicago and Los Angeles are big markets, and the advertising rates will be considerably larger. When I imagine the likely story lines for the game, I believe UCLA will be advertised as a team desiring to return to its former glory as an elite team. In contrast, Illinois will be a team trying to save its coach's job. Sure, the UCLA coach is also on the hot seat. Sure, UCLA has lost six in a row and is playing at Illinois. But, considering the needs of the advertisers, who do you think the announcers will favor? Perhaps they will be fair, but I don't expect it.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories