The easier it is to communicate with the world, the easier it is for the world to tell us lies. The other day the phone rang in our kitchen, and a woman whose voice was impatient and hard as stone told me the IRS was about to take legal action against me and I’d better call a certain number fast. The number was 682-777-2847. The message was a lie.
At about the same time a woman with the lovely name Rachel Mackenzie began sending me emails expressing concern for my welfare. One email said, “We regret to inform you that the position you applied for is no longer available. With that said, we were impressed by your application and insist that you interview for one of the three open positions listed in the link below.” Another said, “Yes, the position you applied for is still available, but we don’t think that you are the right fit. But that being said, we were impressed by your application and insist that you interview for one of the three open positions listed in the link below. We look forward to receiving your next application and then finding the right position for you here at our company.”
Other emails urged me to act fast to receive housing benefits I apparently was in line for, and to claim money that might be due me under the 2010 Stimulus Act. Over the span of about a week dozens of emails rolled in, from Rachel Mackenzie and from various colleagues, all of them equally solicitous. Acting on their instructions would be as simple as clicking on the link embedded in each email. Which I might have done if I’d been so desperate for a break in life I refused to see I was being inundated with lies.
But while visiting Facebook recently I got taken. A “breaking news” announcement made my jaw drop. Peyton Manning had been caught using a forbidden performance enhancer and the Denver Broncos had canceled his contract. The announcement linked to an ESPN story with the headline, “Broncos Cancel Peyton Manning’s $84 Million Contract!” The story began, “Staff reporter Richard Mason Investigates the performance enhancement supplement that cost Peyton Manning his $84 Million Contract!
Only one thing could have made this shocking story even bigger—being true. Which at first I supposed it was, until I realized no other news outlets were picking up the ESPN bombshell. That made me wonder. A day or two later I spotted identical “breaking news” about QBs Russell Wilson and Michael Vick. A few days after that—Tom Brady.
Dressed up to look like ESPN news stories, these actually were ads for the performance enhancers, which no one had been punished for using because no one had banned them. Read carefully, the ad copy—as opposed to the headline—said so: it told us Peyton “may” be suspended and the NFL “will ban” the supplement, which is to say neither had happened.
I think the idea here was for us to tolerate these lies as jokes we were smart enough to be in on, the point being that in the bad-boy culture of body cultists, a boast of being so potent you’re dangerous does a pharmaceutical no harm. I spotted the product for sale on Amazon and read the reviews there. They were overwhelmingly negative—not because of the product’s mendacity but because it didn’t work.
“Don’t buy into the hype.’
‘My husband was totally dissatisfied.’
‘IT ACTUALLY DECREASED MY TESTOSTERONE LEVELS.!”
And so forth. I asked ESPN what it thinks about this appropriation of its logo and format, “We are aware of these sorts of fake ads and are exploring legal options to protect our IP,” said an ESPN spokesperson, in my view expressing less outrage than the situation warrants. I gave them ten days for their explorations and asked again. She said she had nothing to add.
Maybe the situation doesn’t warrant outrage. Maybe big-time sports is such a fen of greed and deceit that no one can bring himself to care. ESPN’s nonchalance made me think twice about Michael Jordan’s recent suit over a grocery ad. Jordan insisted he was standing on principle in protecting his brand, and maybe in his utterly self-serving way he was. Maybe no one believed him because it’s impossible to believe anyone in big-time sports ever stands on principle or even is aware there are principles to stand on.
I also emailed Manning’s agent, Alan Zucker. I asked him if Manning had seen the Elite Test 360 ad, what he thought about it, and whether he’d ever used the product. I got back an unhelpful note from Zucker’s assistant telling me, “Should he have any comments, he will reach out.” Zucker didn’t.
And yet the Manning ad promptly disappeared offline. Here’s the Vick ad. It didn’t.