Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sensory Depravation: Eyes Wide Open, Ears Wide Shut

Many of us have an uncomfortable relationship with advertising. This is because, most of the time, we simply do not know what to make of its approach. Either it comes off as too sneaky (the "product placement" that hovers somewhere between paid mention and genuine endorsement) or too overt (the ubiquitous multi-million dollar campaign, the overly quirky spokesperson, or the tacky fast food tie-in), and the result is that you feel like the conventioneer in the hotel bar who isn't quite sure if the woman he's talking to is a prostitute.

Sometimes, though, advertising is relatively straightforward, and this can be refreshing. One example of straightforward advertisement is professional cycling team sponsorship. It's simple: A company gives a bunch of riders some money, and in return the riders put the company's name on the jerseys. There's very little pretense, and the company doesn't even really have to have anything to do with cycling. The company gets exposure, the riders get paid, and everybody wins. (Unless of course the team doesn't win, in which case everybody loses.)

When cycling team sponsorship does get funny though is when the team and the sponsor try to fabricate a connection between the product and cycling that isn't really there, or else embellish one that is. This is generally done in the archaic medium known as the "press release." One would think that in this age of blogs and social networking and seemingly infinite information outlets that the press release would have gone the way of the newsboy shouting "Read all about it!" and yielded to something more organic, but the fact is it's still with us and the quotes are just as stilted as ever. Take this recent quote from Jonathan Vaughters concerning Garmin-Slipstream's acquisition of Transitions Optical as a co-sponsor:

“Our riders are constantly going through different lighting conditions while training and racing. If we can increase visual acuity and reduce visual fatigue, that gives us a big advantage on the road,” said Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Slipstream Sports, the sports management company that owns the team. “Like the team, Transitions is driven by innovation and a commitment to excellence. We are thrilled to work with them.”

Obviously, there is a pretty strong connection between eyewear and cycling, since eye protection is important, and even more crucially you need to be able to see. However, the pitch goes from sincere to hotel bar come-on when Vaughters says that, "If we can increase visual acuity and reduce visual fatigue, that gives us a big advantage on the road." Are other teams so hampered by their eyewear that the 2010 Tour de France is all going to come down to who can see best? Or have Transitions Optical pioneered lenses that become rose-tinted when the team is sucking?

Even more far-fetched is the part about "visual fatigue." Is squinting really siphoning that much energy from the peloton? Do most teams not already have hats and glasses to combat this? If anything, I thought visual fatigue was a problem for people who sit in front of computers all day, which would mean that following the Tour de France is actually more visually fatiguing than riding it. Also, does "visual fatigue" just mean the eyes, or does it extend to the entire face? Sure, your expression can either hide from or broadcast to your competitors certain clues about your condition, but when Thomas Voeckler screws up his face like Mavic screwed up the R-Sys, could it also be costing him precious race-winning watts? Is expressionless the new aerodynamic?

If so then better eyewear is really just the beginning, and teams will soon find new ways to induce that energy-saving bored look. Riders will listen to Garrison Keillor audiobooks during team time trials. They'll dispense with adrenaline-charged pre-race music and instead listen to the Flaming Lips. Maybe they'll even stop swallowing their own saliva, and will instead employ those suction devices from the dentist, or else develop aerodynamic drool cups specially designed for faces totally flaccid and in repose.

"We are thrilled to work with them," Vaughters says of Transitions. I'm certainly glad to see more companies sponsoring cycling, but I do hope the thrill wears off before the 2010 season, since that look of excitement could cost the team a lot of races. Either way, though, Vaughters and his riders will at least be "palping" some serious visual acuity:

But it's not just the cycling teams that like to give their sponsors too much credit for providing them with a race-winning edge. Sponsors also like to invoke the team to show how they're similarly infused with the spirit of teamwork. "We share similar goals rooted in innovation and ethics," says the president of Transitions. Certainly there's nothing wrong with this; after all, it's partly what they're paying for. But they should also keep in mind that not everybody follows professional cycling for the same reasons. Some people watch it for the sporting drama and some watch it for, well, other things. For example, there's plenty of interest in Liz Hatch, but it has little to do with her palmarès:

And lest I be accused of sexism, male cyclists are similarly objectified, as you can see in this video entitled "Hot cycling butt part 6:"

While I lacked the temerity to view parts 1-5, I'm operating under the assumption that the subject matter is similar. In any case, it's certainly ironic that the Crédit Agricole team should travel all the way from France for the 2008 Tour of California (a race which included some riders' worst-ever day on a bike) only to have their posteriors surreptitiously videotaped by someone called "Lycraperv." I'm sure that, way back when CA started sponsoring the team, the words "toned asses" appeared nowhere in the press release. (Though I'm also sure that, before they ended their sponsorship, they would have placed this video in the "Any publicity is good publicity" file.)

And if "visual acuity" is the future of cycling, then auditory impairment may very well be its demise--at least according to this article which was forwarded to me by a reader:

I agree that listening to music on an iPod or similar device while cycling is a bad idea. (Notice that I said "similar device"--I will not impugn the reputation of the Discman, as this is the Lone Wolf's player of choice and it would insult him by association.) However, I also think it's important to look at the broader context. As you can see from the high-locked bike in the photo, many of the people who ride while listening to iPods also ride brakeless fixed-gears. (They ride with iPods because their understanding of cycling comes entirely from watching fixed-gear videos, and so they believe that you can't ride a bike without a constant soundtrack.) So isn't it just as reasonable to say that brakeless fixed-gears are the problem? Or, conversely, if you narrow the context down you can say that what they're listening to is the problem. These so-called "zombies" are probably listening to soporific music like the Flaming Lips. While this may be good for reducing "facial fatigue," it's also not good for awareness, and might explain the zombie-like expressions. Either way, "zombies" is a bad name for these iPod-wearing fixed-gear riders, since "zombies" eat the brains of others but the "zombie cyclists" seem mostly to be hurting themselves. I think what the article really means is "conformists."

Still, as I said, riding while listening to headphones is a bad idea. The exception, of course, is if you're riding on a stationary trainer, as you might do if you're powering a Christmas tree in Copenhagen:

Another reader forwarded me this article, and it proves once again that Copenhagen burns with the smugness of a thousand Portlands. And if Portland can't compete with Copenhagen, what hope does New York have? If only I wasn't so visually fatigued maybe I'd recruit some helpers, borrow a few Segals, and fire up a menorah:


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