Imagine the scenario: It is the gold medal game of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic hockey tournament, Canada versus USA. The archrival Americans have just scored the go-ahead goal with under a minute to play in the third period. The goalie is pulled for an extra skater, there is a frantic rally as the seconds tick away, but the Canadians cannot bang the puck into the net and time expires. Canada Hockey Place seems quiet as a morgue, until a vocal minority can be heard beginning to cheer:
Fight, fight, fight…
with Miller Lite!
Somewhere in between the initial shock of losing the game and the collective gnashing of teeth that will accompany the forensic aftermath, it suddenly dawns upon Canadians that these vocal American fans in attendance are gleefully chanting a corporate branded cheer. And for weak beer no less — talk about adding insult to injury!
The whole thing sounds preposterous, no?
But is this not the direction we Canadians are heading right now with the recent campaign by Pepsi and Hockey Canada to create a "new cheer" for the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatoon?
Isn't the real prize for the sponsors buried in a hope that the cheer will gain sufficient traction with those present in Saskatoon and the rest watching on television that it continues well after the World Juniors are complete? Continues, say, two months later for the really big event, the Vancouver Winter Games? That the Pepsi hockey cheer will perhaps cascade down from the rafters of Canada Hockey Place as our teams skate toward an Olympic gold medal?
If so, this comes perilously close to the textbook definition of "ambush marketing," the deliberate attempt by one corporate entity to associate itself with an event for which another company has purchased exclusive rights to sponsor. Coca-Cola, Pepsi's chief rival, is one of the TOP-level sponsors of the Olympic Movement, which grants it exclusive sales and promotion opportunities at all Olympic events and venues until 2020, including this February in Vancouver.
With corporate sponsorship and television broadcasting revenues providing the lion's share of its income (nearly 90%), one does not stretch in using the term "draconian" to describe the lengths the International Olympic Committee will go to protect this financing. So powerful is the IOC and its cadre of sponsors that the Canadian government even introduced federal legislation (Bill C-47, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act) that makes ambush marketing and other infringements of official sponsor intellectual properties for financial gain a criminal activity.
But "word-of-mouth" cannot be a criminal activity, can it?
Of course, corporate sponsorship at the stadium has been around for over a century. And there is even some precedent for a cheer involving a branded product, as Miller Lite's iconic "Tastes great! Less filling!" see-saw chorus between groups of fans has illustrated. But never before have we witnessed, through invention, the very words and rhythms a sports spectator uses to cheer so explicitly bind patriotic nationalism to a transnational corporate sponsor.
EH! O' CANADA - GO! Start practicing it. After all, it is now our duty to do so as "true" Canadian hockey fans, is it not? If everyone else at the arena is using the cheer, can it be so easy for one to refuse?
Let us understand how this will play out. Promotional campaigns over the next month will teach us the cheer and introduce appropriate consumer behaviour responses. If the Canadian juniors happen to win their tournament the television ads will intensify, with fresh visuals of players and fans celebrating the victory. The G of the Gatorade bolt logo and the circular Pepsi logo will punctuate the GO! at the end of each cheer. It will feel natural to get caught up in the subsequent tide of emotion and carry the cheer right into Vancouver for the Olympic hockey tournament, only the most important Canadian television event in recent history.
And Pepsi holds "royalty-free, irrevocable and exclusive" rights to this cheer in perpetuity. Forget word-of-mouth, then: we are describing a calculated corporate ventriloquism of the highest order.
This should not be considered a slight against Joan Buma, the Grimsby, Ontario native whose cheer was selected over thousands of other entries to win the contest. Clearly, as she points out, she just wanted to share her passion for our national hockey teams as best she could. Nor is this a question of supporting the men and women who lace up their skates to represent the Maple Leaf — of course we should respect such effort and sacrifice in the name of sporting excellence. The question, rather, concerns a particular attempt to subtly modulate, control and profit from the very ways in which we communicate with one another.
Welcome to capitalism in the information age.
Not long ago, the political theorist Paolo Virno wrote that "nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labour."
In this case, however, the labour is unpaid. It is possibly unethical. And frankly, it is unnecessary. We know how to be fans. We have been doing this since time immemorial — long before a corporate-sponsored cheer came along, anyways — and we shall likely continue to do so long into the future.
When confronted with those situations in which our labour is exploited we are often advised to stand up for what we believe, to shout out for justice, to look power square in the eye and make our voices heard. Actions of this sort have historically produced positive results. But such is the paradox that faces the Canadian hockey fan during the upcoming winter months, for perhaps in this particular case the correct strategy will be to say nothing at all.