[8 March 2009]
Some years ago, a Washington Post reader suggested a new word: Intaxication, defined as “euphoria at getting a refund from the IRS, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.” That word has been on my mind as I read about our state and local governments salivating over the distribution of the $789 billion bailout package. Everyone from the governor to my next door neighbor is expressing gleeful, selfish interest in the “free” money that will soon flow from Washington DC.
Whatever our various government leaders decide to spend the money on, the fact remains that this infusion of capital into the economy is not coming from our collective national savings—it is going on America’s oft-used, no-limit credit card. Every dollar spent is going to need to be paid back. Of course, this assumes that the payback is our intention: Considering that the national debt first breached one trillion under President Reagan and is now closing in on $11 trillion, making payments on that bill doesn’t seem to be a priority for our government.
So how does a nation living on credit keep this additional near-trillion dollar bailout from appearing on their next statement? Simple: Let someone else pay the bill. Particularly, corporate investors will pay off the debt in exchange for promotional consideration.
Raising money through the sale of conspicuous public visibility is a time-tested fund raising method in America. We see it everywhere, from simple product placements on television (think of American Idol’s judges drinking from Coca Cola emblazoned cups) to NASCAR’s drivers and vehicles sporting garish collages of corporate identification; from rock concerts performed under the banner of the beer company underwriting the tour to television coverage of sporting events that includes constant information/marketing cross-pollination features like “Kia keys to the game” and “Coors Light Play of the day”. There is nothing in America that aggressive marketing teams haven’t considered as potential promotional vehicle.
Furthermore, Internet commerce has demonstrated that most Americans are willing to endure a few advertisements in order to get their content for free. The same will be true of the bailout—seeing a Toyota logo lapel pin on Secretary of State Clinton is a small price to pay for avoiding having to pay back nearly a trillion dollars in debt.
It’s ironic that politics can claim to be relatively free of this type of commercialization – for instance, neither the Republican nor Democratic National Conventions were “brought to you by” any immediately evident sponsor – yet politicians have as many crucial funding sources as any NASCAR team, if not more. (After all, NASCAR teams have exclusivity deals; politicians are free to accept donations from competing sources.) The difference is that these financial ties aren’t prominently featured on the cars, clothes, and table tops of our elected leaders.
Yet why not? Does anybody still believe that politics are in any way separate from commerce? To use the parlance of the current economy, these are difficult times, and they call for difficult choices. Frankly, overt promotion of those businesses that are willing to invest in the future of the nation isn’t even a hard choice: Help pay back the debt, and in return your logo is prominently featured on the President’s lapel during a press conference; invest more, you’ll get more—perhaps there’s a negotiable price for getting President Obama to wear an actual UPS uniform for the “delivery” of his next State of the Union speech.
The opportunity for these corporations to realize a return on investment is significant: The value is based on public visibility and on-camera exposure, and who is better at getting themselves in front of a camera than a politician? As plummeting stock prices and rising unemployment continue, people are watching television for news from Washington, so let that news be delivered by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs—with a Wal-Mart button pinned to his jacket for the duration of the news conference.
Might these endorsements be mistaken as favoritism? Definitely. That’s the point. George W. Bush demonstrated the use of patriotism as a bully tactic, now we can broaden its use as a leveraging tool: You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.
Of course, there will have to be a few guidelines for who can be a sponsor:
1.No company that accepts bailout money will be allowed to participate. (Considering the plans to spend bailout money on lavish year end parties, some companies would surely see no irony in using taxpayer money to restore their reputation with the taxpayers.) Thus Ford, which has refused bailout money, can sponsor a big blue oval logo on the presidential limo. This might even pressure General Motors to reconsider its own recovery plans, as they would surely be stung by Ford’s blatant display of patriotism.
2. No company that has issued a mass layoff will be allowed to participate. The idea is to support the economy, not buy advertising at the expense of the economy.
3.Sponsors will get to promote their support in other advertisements. Thus, if McDonald’s opts to pay off some of the bailout debt in exchange for Joe Biden making public statements while prominently displaying a carton of french fries, they can also state “Proud sponsor of the American Bailout” in their other advertisements. This will increase the pressure on other companies to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Let’s face it, as a nation, we are far too immersed in debt to ignore a viable repayment method, and as a culture, we are far too steeped in commercialism to pretend that politics should be hands-off for such mercenary endeavors.
Corporate America’s funding of the bailout is a win-win scenario. The only problem is that the rules above may prove to be an obstacle for the success of the program: If we eliminate every business that took bailout money or had a mass layoff, there may not be many left to sponsor the bailout. In that case, well, we could always sell the sponsorship to China.