The 2017 World Series: when the advertising Rubicon was crossed
I am not one of those people who think that advertising is inherently evil. Not by a long shot. Advertising helps pay my salary and, for my entire life, has made most of the entertainment I consume possible, often free of charge to me. It’s a fact of life in our society. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s entertaining. In certain, narrow cases I worry that it’s destructive, but for the most part I think it’s benign. Everyone’s gotta pay the bills, professional sports and professional sports media included. Most of us have developed pretty decent filters and a healthy skepticism when it comes to commercials.
That said, I feel like we’ve crossed some sort of line with this year’s World Series when it comes to advertising. The line which, generally speaking, had kept the advertising largely separate from the game itself.
I and basically everyone watching the game at home first noticed this last night, soon after the first pitch. Check out the YouTube Ad placement:
That “play” button is smack dab in the middle of the screen, just as it would be for an actual YouTube video. Heck, when a right-handed batter was up, the thing looked like it was actually hovering in front of the umpire’s shoulder or catcher’s head. It was unquestionably designed to be there and YouTube is likely pleased that everyone was talking about it during the game and continues to talk about it today. For fans, however, it was distracting, taking us out of the action for a moment or two on multiple occasions. It may have made me think of YouTube more, but it made me think less of them and less of Major League Baseball for cluttering up my viewing experience.
Later in the game we saw what, I think anyway, was the first visual, in-game, split-screen advertisement in the World Series. Yes, announcers have read promos for years and in-game events ranging from pitching changes to pinch hits to stolen bases to grand slams have long had distinct sponsors. Likewise, almost all local broadcasts have branded graphics which, briefly anyway, are superimposed over the action. Last night, however, there were mid-inning ads for Wendy’s. They took up more than half of the screen, with the game “action” (they occurred during mound visits and brief delays) relegated to a small box on the left.
Like I said, native advertising in a game is not new -- last year T-mobile sponsored mid-game breakaways to the studio hosts during the Series -- but this split-screen thing seemed to take it to a different level. It wasn’t terribly distracting. Indeed, if baseball wanted to do more of these ads in lieu of the extended commercial breaks we see in the postseason I’d be OK with it. It’s always the case, however, that new forms of advertising are never an “or” proposition. They’re an “and” proposition. As long as companies will pay for the time, we’ll see long breaks and the in-game ads.
The final bit of creeping advertising I noticed is far more troubling to me and, in many ways, rather pathetic. Here are two passages from Game 1 stories on MLB.com, written by two of the very best baseball writers around: Richard Justice and my former NBC colleague Joe Posnanski, respectively:
Did you know you were watching “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV,” or were you so dumb that you thought you were just watching the plain old “World Series?” By the same token did you know you were watching the “NLCS Presented by Camping World?” Because you were. If you were ignorant of this you can be forgiven, however, because unlike me you don’t get the MLB press releases announcing the league’s corporate sponsorships.
If companies want to give MLB money for naming rights to a playoff series, MLB can name them whatever they want. Seeing those sponsorships in editorial content at MLB.com, however, is a different matter. On one level, it just makes for clumsy and bad writing. On another level, it makes you question the editorial integrity of MLB.com itself.
MLB.com’s news operation was met with great skepticism when it first launched nearly 20 years ago, with many fearing it would be a league-friendly propaganda outlet like Pravda. MLB proved the doubters wrong, however, by publishing excellent work by excellent journalists, and it continues to do so today. Will MLB always be as critical of the clubs and the league as fans and some other journalists are? No, but that’s easy to let pass, because in many cases -- and on a lot of the team-specific pages -- the reporters working for MLB do a better job than the newspaper folks with whom they compete. Indeed, they are often less in the bag for the teams and the league than the newspaper guy is.
This in-story advertising, however, makes one wonder about all of that. It certainly makes one wonder about the disclaimer MLB.com places on every one of its articles which reads “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.” That has to be a lie, right? Because I know Richard Justice and Joe Posnanski, I have talked to both of them in person and I know damn well that they don’t casually refer to the World Series as “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV.” That was either mandated or inserted by an editor who, in turn, got a memo from someone above them telling them that that is how the Series will be referred to. That diktat likely came directly from the business side of MLB. My guess is that YouTube specifically paid for that kind of branding. It makes one wonder what else is for sale in MLB.com’s news stories.
Like I said at the outset: I’m not naive. I’m not reflexively anti-advertising. Ads serve a purpose and help me make my living. Ads are often, in and of themselves, entertaining (I personally loved the “Dad Support Group” ad for Progressive Insurance last night, even if it hit a bit too close to home). But I feel like Major League Baseball’s pursuit of ad dollars has gotten out of hand. It is intruding upon the game itself and what most of us have come to appreciate as straightforward coverage of the game.
Is such a state of the affairs inevitable? Perhaps. But it’s certainly regrettable.