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Tuesday 10 June 2003

Converting Ability into Currency

In Slate, Rob Walker is complaining about Reebok’s use of 3-year-old Mark Walker (no relation) in its ads.

The young Mr. Walker appears to have an unusual ability to perform basketball-related acts:

In one clip the child, who seems to be in a basement, clutches a basketball, rears back, and hurls it over his head with both hands into a basket, 18 times in a row. He counts out the shots in a diminutive voice. Another clip shows him as a diapered 21-month-old making baskets into a toy hoop, and then, at age 3, shooting into a rim set at 10 feet while his off-camera mother chirps, “Good shot, sweetie.”

Anyone who pays attention will note that this is not entirely unlike the footage of Tiger Woods as a toddler batting away at golf balls. Reebok is trading on this: young Mr. Walker may or may not be a future basketball star. If he isn’t, they’ve got some ads to sell Reeboks for toddlers. If he is, the gamble will pay off in a very, very big way for Reebok. This isn’t the first time the company has tried this: in 1992, they ran a big ad campaign centered around Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson in the runup to the 1992 Olympic games. O’Brien no-heighted in the pole vault trials, and Johnson won the bronze medal in the decathlon. As it was, the ad campaign was effective (I remember it, ten years later); had Johnson and O’Brien been wildly successful, so would the campaign have been.

Anyway, the elder Mr. Walker, of Slate, is disturbed by Reebok’s use of a 3-year-old spokesman. He says it has “something to do with the voyeuristic impulses that feed reality television, and even more to do with the basic marketer’s instinct for hype.”

Watching the 3-year-old’s performances, you can’t help but wonder about the parents, always at the ready with their video camera and a few words of chipper exhortation. In the past, such parents may have sought out a cash-prize talent contest to convert their “prodigy” spawn’s curious ability into currency.

I don’t understand what he’s talking about with ‘voyeuristic impulses’. This is a show put on for the camera, of someone throwing a basketball at a hoop. If he thinks that’s voyeuristic, make sure nobody tells him about NASCAR, where millions of people watch cars driving.

His last sentence, though, is even more bewildering, but in a different way. He seems to have a problem with the conversion of ability into currency.

There are actually few abilities that are directly useful or remunerative, though. The ability to make food grow from the ground is inherently rewarding; so is the knowledge of where and how to dig up valuable minerals, how to construct a shelter, kill a moose, etc., etc.

Nearly everything else, from throwing basketballs to writing for Slate, involves turning ability into some abstract currency — which currency you can then use to deal with people who know how to do actually useful things, like kill moose and build shelters. That someone with a valuable ability is only three years old shouldn’t make a difference. The only reason that more three-year-olds aren’t making money is that only very few three-year-olds have any valuable abilities at all.

Posted by tino at 23:23 10.06.03
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