Friday, July 16, 2010

On Gimmicks

More than 111 million Americans watched at least six minutes of the World Cup. Google wasn't as helpful in helping me determine how many Americans watched July 4th fireworks displays a couple weeks ago (without any advertising revenue at stake, I could see how Nielson would take a pass on trying to measure that number). But I would presume to venture that the number of fireworks-goers exceeds even World Cup viewers. At a certain point, ritual and tradition builds its own inertia, and even though patriotic fervor ebbs and flows, every year from time immemorial people have been trudging to mid-summer fireworks--and to time immemorial, one can predict that successive generations raised in widely diverse environments will all partake of this same July 4th ritual.

Yet every tradition starts somewhere, and even as the mere repetition of a ritual imbues it with a certain solemnity and venerability, we lose sight of the fact that the ritual itself is at root, a "gimmick." This word has a negative connotation (and in the case of the second listed definition at, a negative denotation), but I don't mean disrespect by using it. The World Cup is also a gimmick-- a multi-billion dollar, world-encompassing gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. The concept of having nations from across the globe send teams of guys who kick a ball around to a central location every four years to engage in competition for a literal cup is a (very cool) gimmick.

We love gimmicks. We pay money for gimmicks, we give our time and attention to events that are arbitrarily declared to be important... and we are often the better for it. The sense of community and collegiality that grows up around shared cultural events (to say nothing of the economic stimulus that such events can provide) often justifies our emotional, temporal, and fiduciary investments.

Most gimmicky events start up serendipitously and/or organically. They often start small and become big. But I'm wondering if we can't reverse the blueprint. I'm wondering if we don't have room on the calendar for a few more gimmicks, and if we can't institute them from the top down. Think of it as a high school "spirit week" for the whole country, perhaps.

For example, a tried and true promotion that baseball teams have long benefited from is the "Turn Back the Clock Night." Teams wear old uniforms, entertainment from a bygone era is offered, and prices are often rolled back. What if we blew that concept up to encompass the entire country? For example, the first Friday in August every year would be "National Turn Back the Clock Night," with a different decade featured on a rotating basis. Let's say that the first year would be '70s night. TV stations would play reruns of Happy Days and Charlie's Angles, radio stations would play Boston and The Bee Gees, bars and clubs would turn into discos, movie theaters would show Star Wars and The Godfather, people would be encouraged to dress in 1970s fashions, and ideally, businesses would offer promotions at 1970s prices. There would probably be a few killjoys who would mock the concept, but I think as a whole, the nation would embrace the gimmick. Like fireworks, it would have a unifying effect, drawing together people of diverse beliefs, classes, and cultures. Added benefits: it might even be educational for young people, and there just may be an economic advantage.

Of course, there is a saturation level, at which point there would be a public backlash against the gimmicks. We couldn't have a gimmick event every day or even every weekend. But not all of them would have to be grand in scale, either. Perhaps we could get some mileage of out something so simple as a federal declaration recognizing September 19 as "Talk Like a Pirate Day," with Barack Obama giving a short prime time address in pirate-speak.

And would it be pushing things too far to suggest that we appoint a new cabinet position: "The Secretary of Gimmicks"? If it ever does get to that point, I would hope this blog post would qualify me for bipartisan support.


Post a Comment

<< Home