Manning should be sacked for his shilling

February 04, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

There's a lot riding on the outcome of today's Super Bowl for Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning. For one thing, he needs to prove that he can face the big one and not choke. (Actually, he seemed to finally prove that against New England in the AFC championship game two weeks ago. But, hey, there's a ring on the line today.)

Manning also needs the win to stay on top as America's first-string shill for credit cards and potentially ruinous consumer debt. If everything goes his way -- and even if it doesn't -- Manning's star will continue to rise, and he'll make even more big money from MasterCard. Timing is everything, and by all measures, the iron is very hot in plastics right now.

News item from our colleagues at the Associated Press: People are saving at the lowest level since the Depression. The Commerce Department reported Thursday that Americans' personal savings rate during 2006 was minus 1 percent, and that's the worst since the time of dust bowls, bread lines and buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime.

"There have been only four years in history that the savings rate has fallen into negative territory," the wire service reported. "The other two were 1932 and 1933 during the Great Depression. During the Depression, when as many as one in four people were out of work, households were exhausting savings in order to pay the rent and buy food."

Now they're doing the same -- and buying sport utility vehicles and wide-screen TVs and using credit cards to pay cell phone bills. (Manning is also a pitchman for Sprint.)

A lot of people -- particularly the young and low-income -- live from paycheck to paycheck, spending every buck that's left after taxes, and they're emptying savings accounts or borrowing more.

They use plastic a lot, more than they should, and the credit card companies like it that way.

A recent ABC News 20/20 report said that nationally, credit card debt has just about tripled since 1989, to something like $1 trillion. (Another report I read recently pinned it at closer to $700 billion, but once we're at this altitude, what's the difference?)

"More than half of all cardholders don't pay their cards off each month and carry an average balance of around $2,000," the 20/20 report said. "According to the Government Accounting Office, credit card issuers make 70 percent of their profit from the interest payments made by cardholders who carry a balance every month." Credit card companies favor the people Peyton Manning salutes in those MasterCard commercials -- fast-food workers, waitresses, guys who work for moving companies -- as well as the guys in their 20s who admire him as a celebrity athlete. That's probably the target audience.

"The [credit card] industry discovered that the most profitable consumers were the least responsible consumers -- college students, people who'd declared bankruptcy, housewives [and] people who were consuming beyond their means,"Newsweek quoted James Scurlock, the director of Maxed Out, a documentary on consumer debt. "People who would pay anything for credit -- any fee or any interest rate because they needed more credit. Before, credit was rationed based on whether you could pay it back, based on your reputation, based on your character, to some degree. It's just not that way anymore, and that's a huge change."

And that's what MasterCard, using Peyton Manning, exploits -- this mess we've gotten ourselves into as a consumer-driven culture.

At first, I thought the Manning MasterCard commercials were funny, but the more I saw them, the more Manning came across as a patronizing put-down artist, making fun of -- not championing -- the working stiffs of America who earn a tiny fraction of what he makes for throwing footballs and acting as pitchman.

Various wage earners depicted in the 30-second spots are the recipients of Manning's phony high-fives.

But this isn't exactly fanfare for the common man. You can't overlook the fact that the Indianapolis quarterback, the one cheering on the below-minimum-wage waitress who drops a tray of dishes, is reportedly the highest-paid player in NFL history, getting $99 million for seven years with a $34.5 million signing bonus, and an extra $19 million in incentives. According to Sports Illustrated, Manning gets another $11 million a year from endorsements.

He'll never have to worry about waiting tables or moving furniture. Hey, everybody wants to make lots of money. It's the American way.

But, unless we've all become ethically bankrupt, it's not just a matter of how much.

It's a matter of how.

Peyton Manning makes millions encouraging use of plastic by the same socioeconomic class he pretends to celebrate in these commercials.

Already a millionaire many times over, he has racked up millions more pushing something that will probably lead more Americans to financial ruin. (CNNMoney.com reported last month that the number of consumer bankruptcy filings surged to a record high, with about one in every 53 households seeking relief from their debts in 2005.)

Many working Americans live so close to poverty, or in poverty, that they go without health insurance just to pay rent and buy food. Wonder how many of the workers depicted in these MasterCard commercials have health insurance benefits from their employers?

My guess would be none.

According to Investor's Business Daily, the cost of uncompensated health care in the U.S. reached $28.8 billion in 2005. That was up from $26.9 billion the year before. The estimate on uninsured Americans ranges from 46 million to 48 million these days.

So pardon me for no longer laughing at Peyton Manning's Everyman-Everyfan commercials. And if victory by Chicago means we might see a little less of this guy shilling for a credit card company and encouraging more debt among Americans, then I say: Go, Bears!

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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