What advertising aimed at sports fans says about its target audience
His helmet consists of, well, helmet hair. His go-to move is a goofy grin. He hasn't thrown a touchdown, thrown down a dunk or even thrown it back to the Bristol studios. Nevertheless, he just might be the unofficial mascot of ESPN News, a ubiquitous presence to rival Sean Salisbury.
His name? Smiling Bob. His game? Spreading the gospel of male enhancement.
Excuse us: all-natural male enhancement.
Highlights come and go. Anchors sign on and off. Smiling Bob endures. Day in and night out, he can be found on the 24-hour sports news network, starring in a series of commercials for the dietary supplement Enzyte - a once-a-day pill that promises a fuller life. If you catch our drift.
"There are worse mascots the network could have," says Trey Wingo, a "SportsCenter" anchor and ESPN radio host. "He seems very happy."
Bob has reason to beam. In a few days, the nation's sports fans will endure the traditional Super Bowl Sunday onslaught of big-budget advertisements for familiar, mainstream products: cola, automobiles, low-carb beer to wash down high-carb tortilla chips.
During the other 364 days of the year, however, our sports pages and airwaves teem with pitches of a different kind. Think hair restoration. Oddball gadgets. "Oriental" massage. Teddy bears. In short, a goofy, grab bag underworld whose head-scratching scope raises an unsettling question.
Namely, just what sort of dupable dweebs do these companies take us for?
[And are they right about our need for male enhancement?]
"Like everybody, you don't admit to watching those ads," says David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports business consultant. "But then again, all you admit to is reading the articles in Playboy. Go back in time and look at a guy like P.T. Barnum. Can you imagine if there was cable TV back in his day? It would be even more outrageous."
Searching for Bob
Matters aren't completely embarrassing. Flip on any all-sports station and you will encounter spots for car insurance, cell phones and video games. Not to mention that manly American staple, the triple-bladed razor. Made to look like a shiny red sports car.
That said, any serious discussion of advertising aimed at sports fans begins and ends with enhanced maleness.
Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro shills for Viagra. Levitra spokescoach Mike Ditka exhorts us to "strive to be our best." A middle-aged dude throws a football through a hanging tire, much to the inordinate delight of his wife. Erectile dysfunction has become the hot-button issue of the new sports advertising millennium, displacing previous stalwarts like tastes great vs. less filling and not paying a lot for one's muffler.
Democratic presidential candidates, take note.
"I'm thinking about getting on Enzyte, Viagra and Cialis," says Steve Czaban, a radio host for WTEM-AM and Fox Sports. "I want to pump my body full of all kinds of drugs just to see what happens. I'll have hairy palms and an insatiable sex drive."
Other pitches address the obvious post-Viagra query: What's an enhanced gentleman to do? Hence the quarter-page ad block in a local sports page featuring not one, not a dozen but nearly thirty massage parlors - many sporting an Asian theme and one boasting a "South American staff."
Washington is nothing if not cosmopolitan.
"Sometimes the saddest part of my day is reading the sports page in the newspaper and seeing the ads," Wingo says. "Gambling, male health issues, the nearest location of certain male establishments."
The preponderance of enhancement-related appeals is puzzling in at least one sense: Disregarding FIFA poobah Sepp Blatter's recent call for women's soccer players to wear skimpier shorts, isn't watching sports the one time men are thinking with their actual brains?
"Sports are clearly the place where you can reach the most amount of men," says Steve Warshak, CEO of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, the company behind Enzyte. "In the past, we've targeted business and news-related publications and TV stations. But at the end of the day, guys go to sports a little more often."
Sports have been very, very good to Enzyte. And vice versa. The pill's makers recently increased their television advertising budget by 60 percent, debuting seven new Smiling Bob spots on ESPN and Fox Sports.
Rife with visual double-entendre, the ads owe less to Terrence Malick than the "American Pie" trilogy. One shows Bob at a bowling alley, turning in a Shaquille O'Neal-sized pair of rental shoes. Another depicts Bob's neighbor, whose garden hose goes limp at the sight of his grinning pal.
Enzyte also sponsors a NASCAR Busch Series racing team that doubles as the subject of a Spike TV reality series. The hood of the Team Enzyte No.50 car reads, "With Enzyte, everybody wins."
"Is their car bigger than the rest?" Wingo says. "And wouldn't that defeat the purpose?"
Not necessarily. As it turns out, size really does matter - at least when it comes to the perceived manliness of the athletes on the screen, vis-a-vis Joe Viewer's personal lack of enhancement.
"Athletes are extremely young and virile, and that might make a lot of viewers insecure," says Elayne Rapping, a professor of Media Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Buffalo. "It's just like women watching models on television and feeling insecure about their own bodies. You see a lot of women-oriented programming sponsored by weight loss and exercise products."
Michael Goldberg, chief marketing officer of Zimmerman Partners, a Florida-based ad agency, offers another explanation. Call it the Tom Brady theory.
"These athletes are the worst possible ex-boyfriend of your current girlfriend or spouse," he says.
Hair and teddy bears
Goldberg might be on to something. Insecurity sells. And if watching Brady toss a touchdown makes us fret about threading our own backyard tire, then surely Ben Wallace's bloomin' Afro sounds all sorts of alarms for male-pattern baldness.
Not to worry: Over on ESPN News, the Hair Restoration Group offers a Don King-like pate through something called "Follicular Unit Graphing," which is either a sophisticated type of hair transplant or the newest function on the TI-92 scientific calculator.
Meanwhile, a Bosley commercial shows confident, hirsute men engaged in presumably hair-critical activities, such as serving a tennis ball and exchanging midair karate kicks.
"Sports fans live vicariously through athletes and teams," Carter said. "Why shouldn't we think they live vicariously through a full head of hair?"
Yet while some ads play to adult fears, others appeal to childlike wants. Which is to say, money and toys.
A radio gambling tout offers winners for tonight's nationally televised college basketball games. A sportsbook ad proclaiming "Bet the Bowls!" sits right below a newspaper's Rose Bowl preview article.
Both speak to our inner Pete Rose, peddling headfirst action and profit.
Better still, they fuel the quixotic dream of every fan: that what we're reading in the sports page can be put to good use, beyond killing time on the toilet. Utility also explains the lure of the John Riggins-endorsed Drill Doctor, a Washington Redskins radio staple. After all, who doesn't need to sharpen a bucketful of dull drill bits on a regular basis?
Likewise, the as-seen-on-TV QuikStrip wire stripper answers an age-old riddle that baffled Aristotle and Bob Vila alike: Namely, how can I strip up to four car stereo cords in less than a second's time?
"These are very real and very thriving businesses," Carter says. "It would be interesting to see who's buying those products depending on which teams they follow. Are [Los Angeles] Lakers fans buying the same products as [Milwaukee] Brewers fans? Brewers fans are probably buying cigarettes and blindfolds."
For the lazy in love, there's the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, a WTEM regular that delivers personalized teddy bears in lieu of flowers. Send a cap 'n' gown-clad Graduation Bear [$79.95] to your college-bound daughter, a briefcase and credit card-holding Accountant Bear [$85.95] to your CFO wife or a trench coat-wearing Undercover Lover Bear [$79.95] to your South American masseuse.
Fittingly, the company also sells a Baseball Bear [$69.95] whose ballcap and bat reflect perhaps our greatest non-enhancement concern: the silent national crisis in self-directed youth baseball instruction.
How else to explain commercials for the Reggie Jackson-approved Hit-Away, essentially a ball tether that allows for hours of solo swinging? Or the creepy, "Triumph of the Will" meets "Bad News Bears" spots for the Tom Emanski Defensive Drills Video?
Featuring Fred McGriff and a chorus line of Little Leaguers who field and throw in stormtrooper-style unison, the Emanski videos are thought to be the longest-running ad campaign in ESPN history.
"God forbid little Johnny can't one-hop one from the outfield to a prone garbage can," Czaban says. "My life would be so much better if my kid could just hit .330 in Little League."
Sarcasm aside, maybe it would. Perhaps sports fans aren't losers but rather philanthropic givers. Perhaps they're making the world a better place. One grooved batting stroke at a time.
OK, maybe not.
"Are you going to get some soccer mom who listens to Rush Limbaugh to bet a couple of grand through an offshore account on the NFL playoffs? I doubt it," Czaban says. "Where else can you find a bunch of dumb, gullible men that are lazy, slothful and willing to try anything just because they hear about it on the radio?"
Actually, it isn't just anything. It's a pill that makes us firmer. A teddy bear that improves our domestic standing. A wire-stripper that can cut up to four cords at once. Four cords.
Simply put, it's stuff that makes our world a little brighter. Or at least promises to, outside of the fine print disclaimer noting that the FDA has not evaluated the above statements.
"One man's infomercial is another man's salvation," Carter says. "Those 1-900 lines that you hear whispering at 3 in the morning are helping people get over the fact that they're [Los Angeles] Clipper fans."
Such is the Tao of the teddy bear. The raison d' Drill Doctor. The secret of Smiling Bob. When it comes to self-improvement, sports fans are no different than anyone else. We just can't help ourselves.
But we're forever willing to try.
"The bottom line, for me, is that we're helping people," Wingo says. "Whether they're striking out on the baseball field or at home, ESPN and the people who support us are making a difference. We're enhancing the viewer. And it's all natural."
SPORTS FAN BUYER'S GUIDE
Can't decide between a Drill Doctor and talking to your doctor about Levitra? We're here to help. Let your team allegiance be your guide:
What it is: A once-a-day pill for all-natural male enhancement.
For fans of: Teams that come up a little short. The Philadelphia Eagles, the New Jersey Nets, the Washington Redskins' Lilliputian stable of running backs.
Also try: Viagra, Goat Weed, tossin' a football through the tire hanging from your tallest backyard tree. You do have one of those, right?
2. Drill Doctor
What it is: A machine that sharpens dull drill bits. Technology is on our side.
For fans of: Teams that are dull. The O.J. Anderson-era New York Giants, the Utah Jazz [circa 1998], the Redskins' offense under Steve Spurrier, post-Osaka.
Also try: A blacksmith, Ginsu steak knives, getting off the couch and driving to Home Depot to buy a new drill bit.
3. Hair Restoration Group
What it is: Looks like some sort of hair transplant procedure.
For fans of: Teams that are missing something up top. The until-recently coachless Oakland Raiders, Bill Bidwill's Arizona Cardinals, the Redskins' empty general manager office.
Also try: Shaving your skull, a toupee, a neck to forehead comb-over. The last works for Donald Trump.
4. Vermont Teddy Bears
What it is: Personalized teddy bears, delivered to your significant other.
For fans of: Teams that take away from family time. The Los Angeles Lakers because they're always on TV; John Madden and Al Michaels because they're the voices of "MNF"; the Redskins [and that's just for hardworkin' Joe Gibbs, down in the film bunker].
Also try: Flowers, chocolates, saying "I love you" once in a while, remembering your anniversary, give or take a few weeks.
5. Tom Emanski Defensive Drills Videos
What it is: Videos [shown below] that teach baseball fielding fundamentals.
For fans of: Teams that can't stop the ball on defense. The Dallas Mavericks, the Indianapolis Colts, the Redskins' defensive line.
Also try: Shagging 1,000 grounders a day, buying a bigger glove, signing free agent-to-be Warren Sapp.
Originally published in The Washington Times