To load the bases with commercials --that's foul ball



At Memorial Stadium, where the ballplayers celebrate youth and health, I am urged to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. It says so in right-center field. I watch Mike Devereaux and Dwight Evans converge on a fly ball, and there's the message right behind them.

Devereaux makes a nice running catch. A moment later we see the catch again on the Diamond Vision instant replay screen just beyond the outfield fence. There's Devereaux, and there's the beer ad right above him, next to the cigarette ad. Every time you look at Diamond Vision, which is several dozen times a night, there along the edge of your eyesight and your consciousness is the message: Have a beer. Have a cigarette.

"You want a beer?" I find myself asking moments after Devereaux's catch.

"You almost never drink beer," my friend says. "What's going on?"

"I don't know," I say. "I just have an urge."

I wander down to a concession stand. I get a beer and a hot dog, and napkins for the inevitable spills. Did somebody mention inevitability? I look at the napkins. They contain an advertisement:

"Changing Point Alcoholic and Drug, Education and Treatment Centers."

Why do I feel they've got us coming and going?

We're drowning in a sea of sensory overload. The typical American, we're told, is bombarded by about 3,000 commercial messages a day, from TV to newspapers and magazines and radio to billboards and ballpark scoreboards and napkins.

There are so many of these things, in fact, that they're now bumping into each other, feeding off of each other, contributing to each other's markets. The scoreboard tells us to have a drink, and the napkin that comes with our drink tells us what to do when we realize we can't seem to stop our drinking. Is this a conspiracy, or merely a coincidence?

On the 800 block of Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore last week, residents said they've had enough with advertisements. They don't have to go to the ballpark for cigarette and alcohol ads. They just look out their windows.

There are about 1,300 signs hanging in low-income city residential neighborhoods, even after a Circuit Court judge ordered them removed last year. The case has been appealed, and it's scheduled to be heard in September by the Court of Special Appeals.

But last week, the Rev. Norman Handy of the Lafayette Square Community Association told Sun reporter Ginger Thompson of a small liquor billboard "with a bare-chested woman standing in the middle of a group of men. I couldn't tell if they were promoting drinking or sex."

Both, actually. Advertising has always been a vehicle for getting people to buy things they don't need with money they don't have. You don't need a drink? How about the sex that the ad implies you can get with the drink?

Most of the 1,300 so-called junior billboards -- they're about 5 feet by 10 feet -- are owned by Boisclair Advertising Inc. The company's response is: Nobody is forced to look at the billboards. If you don't like them, ignore them. Turn away.

Oh, yeah? Turn where? I go to my neighborhood food store, and there are advertisements on the inside of the shopping basket. I go to the movies, and there are commercials before the feature starts. Then they're sneakily showing commercial products in the features themselves. Doesn't my $6 entitle me to some kind of immunity from come-ons? I turn on my car radio to listen to the Orioles, and they can't announce the scores without mentioning a sponsor.

People who keep track of such things tell us the average American spends about 18 months of his life watching TV commercials. The number of ads printed and broadcast doubled between the mid-'60s and the early '80s and is expected to double again by the mid-'90s.

Turn away? Turn where? A couple of years ago, somebody had the bright idea to put advertisements on parking meters. They were not a huge success. Sure, they were right in front of your eyes every time you fed the meter, but that's exactly the problem: You associated the product with feeding the damned meter.

There's such a thing as the proper environment for an ad. You pick up a newspaper or magazine, you put your eyes where you want. You turn on the TV, and you turn the channel if the ad offends you. That's why God invented remote controls.

But you don't want to walk through your neighborhood and see billboards for cigarettes and booze. Or, for that matter, anything else. And you don't want to go to a ballpark, where youth and health are celebrated, and stare into ads for products that destroy the human body.

Handing out napkins that tell us where to get help before the destruction is final just isn't much of a mopping-up effort.

Don't these people understand? There's a time and place for everything.

In West Baltimore last week, angry residents began tearing down some of the billboards. Some people would like to do the same thing at Memorial Stadium. Maybe that's why they have outfield fences.

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