THE recent controversy over the ICC and cricket underlies the power of television and money in sports today. Briefly, Rupert Murdoch had reached a 550 million dollars deal with the ICC by which during ICC tournaments (including one month before and after) his company – Global Cricket Corporation — would hold exclusive rights to the players’ image being used for advertisement. The so-called ambush advertisement clause means that who ever wins the contract with ICC – in this case Murdoch – would have exclusive rights to hawk a Tendulkar or a Dravid to any company which wants to use their image for their ad campaigns. As India provides the largest market in terms of a television audience, the participation of the Indian players is crucial in ICC’s scheme.
We are not concerned here with the rights or wrongs of the ICC controversy. The issue of who has the right to their image of players, the players themselves or their associations, are not our central concern here. The far bigger issue is the importance of brands in today’s market place and the association of leading sports persons with the brand in creating brand image, and the delivery to people’s homes of this packaged brand image through the “pipeline” of television.
Radio and television, when it started, went through the debate of whether public airwaves should be used for commercial purposes or should it be used for culture, science education. While the public broadcasting model was followed in Europe, the American model, after an initial debate switched over to a private and advertisement supported model. In India, people may remember Radio Ceylon as the only commercial channel catering to Hindi pop music before Vividh Bharati was floated.
Initially, airwaves were looked upon as scarce national resources and led to state monopolies in Europe and elsewhere. In the US, it led to private monopolies, particularly in television with only 3 terrestrial channels NBC, CBS and ABC.
The fall of the public broadcasting model is not the focus here. Today, the development of multiple television access – cable TV, Satellite TV and Digital Channels that allow many more channels to be carried than earlier — have focussed on commercially supported programmes. Paid channels and public broadcasting exists, but only in a restricted sense. The number of channels have increased to more than a 100 even in India and threatens to reach 500 within the next 5 years with the introduction of digital TV.
The major issue for TV channels today is the battle for “eyeballs”. More viewers means more ad revenue. Radio and television as a medium to bring culture, science and education has been abandoned in this quest for “eyeballs” and revenue. The state broadcasters have followed the same path as the private satellite stations: commercial media is now a virtual universal given. The only exceptions are community radio stations in many parts of the world. India does not even support community radio stations unlike Nepal and Srilanka. The mainstream media is now exclusively for propagating Nike, Pepsi and Coke. Even though we have a large number of channels, the fundamental question regarding public interest and broadcasting still remains. Market and competition do not automatically serve public interest; more choices may merely mean more of the same and can even reduce heterogeneity.
WHY ARE BRANDS
The net result of this barrage of TV stations is that increasingly, sound bytes and images are taking over the public space, relegating the world of people to a mere backdrop. Reality and virtual reality are forming a chequerboard of light and shadows, making it difficult to distinguish between the real and the imagined. The brand images and sports icons straddle this mythical world in which some of the magic of the icons rub off on commodities advertised.
Why have brands and brand images become so important in the world? Part of the reason undoubtedly lies in the ability to create an image in the minds of the consumers of which somehow associates the quality of a Michael Jordan with the Nike shoe. If only he has he same shoes, the Air Jordan – he would soar like Michael Jordan his hero in the basketball field. Tendulkar is not just a cricketing hero, he is a marketing icon that can build a brand.
This brings in to the second part of the brand business. It is no longer a product that is important. Industrial capitalism lead to mass manufacture to reduce costs and improve quality. It achieved this using standardisation of components and goods, economies of scale and quality control. However, it produced rigid production structures, large plants and eliminated or minimised customer choices. As Henry Ford was reported to have said, “You can have any colour as long as it’s black”. The end user was willing to sacrifice variety for quality and low cost. Customised goods remained but as expensive goods for an elite and a niche market.
Even though this is still the way the majority of manufacturing is performed today, changes are beginning to take place. In addition to high quality, low cost, and fast delivery, many customers now demand products that exactly fit their needs. We’re moving toward an environment where factories will start combining mass production and customisation into “mass customisation.” The customer today wants variety and high quality and wants it at the same cost. With variety, we also see the dwindling visibility of the product and an increased visibility of the brand. It is because we have a huge variety of products today that the brand is far more important than the product.
Once the products are sold as brands and the brand image created through television and other media, we have to look at the economics of this phenomenon. Starkly put, a Michael Jordan is paid more for his endorsements than the entire workforce in Indonesia that produces Nike shoes. And a shoe costing $5 is sold for $50-100 in the world market using the power of the Nike brand image. The brand image builds super monopoly profits by ripping off the consumers using sports icons. This is at the core of the economic system today.
KEY ISSUE IN
The key issue here is that with brands creating mass consumer goods monopolies, technology, costs and quality become less relevant. In most of the consumer goods market today, the price of the premium branded products are typically 5 to 10 times their cost of production. From coffee to jeans, the producers get only a fraction of the final price of the product. It is not that alternate unbranded products are not there in the market. But the pressure of following their sports icons drives the consumers to branded products such as Nike.
In such a scenario, brand wars do not lead to price wars. They lead instead to ad wars. We are all familiar with the ad campaigns that Pepsi and Coke have been conducting against each other. The quest for a larger market share focuses not on the price or the quality of coloured and sugared water called cola, but on the stroke play of Tendulkar or the mass appeal of Amitabh Bachchan.
The globalised world of capital is also producing its antipode. Increasingly, activists are coming together raising questions regarding Nike’s treatment of its workers in Asia and contrasting it with its “just do it” cool and hip brand image. Local and global actions are not seen to be exclusive either or options but a part of a larger coalition building. Increasingly, voices of opposition are raising the fundamental question: who are benefiting from the current order and who are losing? And increasingly, the true nature of the devastation of imperialist globalisation is emerging from its brand image of bringing plenty and glitzy life style for the people.