Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shaving away the brain cells.

Have you seen that new commercial that teams soccer star Thierry Henry, tennis phenom Roger Federer, and Tiger Woods? (We don't really need to identify Mr. Woods at this juncture, do we?) Masters of their respective athletic domains, they stride with purpose and potency toward the camera, resplendent in their dark, manly suits; they talk in measured, manly tones, expounding on the wonders of confidence and being in the zone. They talk about how they "don't worry about tomorrow"; that's because it's all in the moment...and this is your moment, and you don't want to screw it up like you normally do. (They don't say that last part, but it's the unmistakable message.)

And the product? Is it investment advice? or some other career site? Maybe A new line of power suits?

Nope. It's a Gillette ad. It's for razors.

Too much. Even our razors must embody confidence and Empowerment. Gillette spends less time telling you how well the damn thing might shave you than telling you how unstoppable it will somehow make you feel.


While I'm in a Sportsthinking mode, I should mention something fairly significant that happened on an ESPN baseball broadcast last week. (And even if you have zero interest in sports, I invite you to at least read the "note" at the end.)

The two commentators, one of whom* was the insufferable Rick Sutcliffe (who appears to be trying hard to dislodge Tim McCarver from his spot as the most unlistenable "color man" in baseball), got into a discussion of late-inning rallies and what it takes to put one together. This drags us into areas that may be unfamiliar to people who didn't grow up around baseball's rhythms, cliches and superstitions. If you're in that category—and you still want a textbook example of how thoroughly, unspeakably dumb it gets at the outer limits of "attitude is everything"—try to stay with me here. I think it's worth it.

One of baseball's conventional wisdoms poses that if you're losing by several runs, what you really need to kick-start your big comeback isn't a homerun...rather, you want a walk or a base-hit. The "reasoning"** here is that having runners on base gives your team a sustainable mental boost, while at the same time demoralizing the other team: It just "looks like the beginning of something." A homerun, on the other hand, is a self-contained event that ends with the bases empty again, so therefore—if you believe the purists—it can actually be a rally killer: After it's over, your team (supposedly) is right back where it started. You will literally hear sportscasters in such situations say, aloud, into the mic, knowing that their thoughts are being heard across America, "A homerun doesn't do the Cubs any good here. What they need is baserunners." But as luck would have it, the impetus for last week's on-air chat was a study of the matter by Elias Sports Bureau.*** (Imagine that! Somebody looked for empirical evidence of something!) It turns out that more late-inning rallies start with homeruns than with walks, according to Elias. And Sutcliffe—who, I concede, must get due credit for even bringing the whole thing up—was stunned by this. Stunned! So was his in-booth partner.

Now, call me ignerint, but I always kinda thought this way: If you're hoping to score several runs, wouldn't it be helpful to get the first one first? So wouldn't it make sense that a homerun, rather than a walk, would be the catalyst in more such rallies? After all, you can get three straight walks and still not manage a run, if nobody does anything after that. A homerun results immediately in, well, a run. Isn't the first run sort of a key ingredient in every inning where teams score multiple runs?

But see, that's not what we're taught. From our earliest days in Little League (or youth soccer, or Pop Warner, or whatever), we're taught that the key to winning is establishing and sustaining the proper frame of mind. We're taught that momentum is contagious, that it feeds on itself; that if you're a ballplayer, and you can look out there and see your guy standing at first base after his walk, and hear the crowd cheering while the organ-meister pounds out those repetitive, percussive rally-riffs...that's what's going to win the game for you. Not hitting balls over fences.

NOTE to those who wonder why I devote so much time to sports: Because this is the very same mentality that makes politicians (a) get on a podium and yell stupid, emotional things like "We're gonna smoke 'em out!"—when they have absolutely no credible plan for achieving same—or (b) declare victory in wars that haven't really been fought yet. I could continue with c through z, of course. It's all bluster, no brains. And it doesn't just lose games. It loses lives.

* The other one might have been Dave O'Brien, but I didn't write it down. It's not important.
** I use the word advisedly.
*** Beloved by stat-addicted fans everywhere, ESB can provide you with the statistical breakdown on just about anything. Ever wonder how many dyslexic, blue-eyed, left-handed pitchers named Stan won their 100th baseball game before their 28th birthday? And then celebrated later at Pizza Hut (where they had the meat lover's special but passed on the endless pasta bar)? Elias probably has the answer.


Cal said...

Did this stuff start with the famous Knute Rockne "win one for the Gipper" speech? It's no wonder many of these athletes don't know how to think or speak for themselves. Every sport has a zillion coaches for even the most minute things (especially football, but does a manager need a bench coach or Phil Jackson need 5 assistants when he has Michael Jordan or Shaq or Kobe on his team). I remember when the quarterback called all the plays in football. Even in baseball, many of the pitches are called from the dugout. Hockey is probably the only one of the four major sports where the players literally have to think on the fly.

I know you had a chapter on Sportsthink in SHAM. But maybe you should have a full book on it for us sports fans. Some of these soccer Moms and Dads could use it, as well as the Sportstalk nation.

gregory said...

so, everybody wants to feel good about themselves --- why is that?

Steve Salerno said...

The "Gipper" speech is probably as good a watershed moment as any, though Rockne himself did not think much of his oratorical skills, and was never comfortable in that role on the banquet circuit. Of course, you can look back even farther in sports and find isolated Sportsthink moments. Later on, TV clearly had a lot to do with it: the need to flesh out the script and imbue these discrete athletic acts with symbolism and "human drama."

Gregory, here again, it's hard to know what to say in response. Do people want to feel good about themselves? Yes. Should they delude themselves in order to do it, thereby risking a much worse crash than they might have had otherwise? That's up to each of us, I suppose. Me, I don't think it's worth it; I speak not only as someone who has studied all this, but from personal experience. Self-delusion does not end well.

Mary Anne said...

I saw this commercial last night and dare I say it, they looked kind of gayish. Who is Gillette trying to sell to?

Matt Dick said...

Mary Anne, there's reasonable evidence (I'd never be able to site the study) showing that television ads aimed at men that feature pretty women are not as effective as those that feature pretty men -- even for heterosexuals. The speculation by the researchers is that ads are about identifying yourself as the hero of the commercial. So it may be gayish looking to you, but the men are all hoping to look like Woods in a suit.

Steve, there is so much to say on this. Two possibilities:

I wonder if the whole sportspeak derives from sports' origins as war-training. I think there is reason to hypothesize that soldiers are more effective when they are whipped up into a frenzy:

And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Of course Shakeseare aside, young men really are encouraged to fight against daunting odds by dint of inspiring words alone. Get your men to charge into withering fire, and you may take the hill, whereas sitting back and being picked off slowly will win you nothing.

So extend that culturally into sports (sports as war metaphor) and you have one possible explanation for why people may believe it works, and why under some circumstance it may work -- think of a running back who needs to hit the hole hard, or the batter who needs to stop shrinking from inside pitches.

The second possibility is a conflation of two aspects to sports performance. You can't sportspeak your player into sacking the quarterback more often, except under the circumstance that you can sportspeak him back onto the field before he is physically able to do it without further exacerbating an injury. So you can inspire him to some level of performance from no level of performance. It's not hard to make the leap from that clear evidence to some more subtle form of believing that they are playing better because of "thinking better" or whatever nonesense.

Mary Anne said...

Well, Tiger and his crew, did not look too comfortable to me. Tiger looks better when he sells Cadilacs or the Onstar system. Now if they had George Clooney in a suit that would be a different story, but these three looked annoyed and on the verge of laughter. It was a weird commercial. It reminded me of John Stamos selling Neet in the early '80's. He would walk up to a model and show the difference between shaved legs and Neet legs. What was that suppose to do for me? If my date came up and told me I had hairy legs, I would have belted him even if he was John Stamos.

Steve Salerno said...

MA, careful now. You're not implying that there's anything wrong with that, are you?

But I do think it's intriguing that the ad consists of a white dude, a black dude and a Hispanic-looking dude* (though Henry self-identifies as French). Maybe the next series of ads will feature an Eskimo, a dwarf and a paraplegic. And rest assured that in saying that, I intend no offense to Eskimos, dwarfs or paraplegics; my cynicism is directed much more at the razor company and its ad agency.

* using the standard definitions of race that Gillette clearly is trying to tap into.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve... Men are so better -looking when they shave that I can't really blame ANY commercials for that... given the number of hairy thing son the streets of Paris;-))