I’ve had a lot of strange emails lately. It seems there are companies that now target blogs, offering to provide ‘quality editorial’, free of charge. As far as I can tell, this ‘quality editorial’ happens to mention a company name here or there, or maybe links off to a website. I’m often not sure if they even realise this is a hockey blog. I’m pretty certain they don’t care.
These are strange times in commercialism, online and off. Whether you’re the Australian Ice Hockey League, wondering how to parlay the new FoxSports deal into dollars, or a blogger wondering if you can justify several hours a week writing about your passion, but at the expense of real work, or a super-hero, wondering how to feed yourself while patrolling the mean streets of the American north-west, sponsorship and making money from what you do continues to be an issue.
Yes, me and the rising number of real-life superheroes apparently have this ethical dilemma in common. I’ve followed Phoenix Jones, self-proclaimed Guardian of Seattle and a founder of the Rain City Super Hero Movement, since he first started patrolling the streets a couple of years ago. Back then, he was an anonymous, masked vigilante do-gooder. It turned out he had a wife, Purple Reign, who started a campaign against domestic violence, also wearing a mask until she suddenly had a revelation that victims of domestic violence should not ‘hide’ and publicly showed her real face. Which was brave and clever. They seem like quite the couple.
I worry a lot for Phoenix – it turns out he’s an ex-MMA fighter and by day is/was a school teacher. Both he and Purple’s identities have been revealed – I think he was in a court case, from memory, where the court record dispassionately gave his full name and address, which shows how long Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and co would have lasted as secret identities outside of the world of comic books.
But Phoenix is still out there, breaking up fights in the hours when only trouble can happen on the streets of Seattle; occasionally a little too enthusiastically, leading to complaints. He writes IN CAPITALS on his Facebook page and gets grumpy when people question his motives or methods. And then over the past week, he suddenly became a walking super-billboard for Nike.
Like this subtle post (that accompanied the pic at the start of this blog): ‘PURPLE AND I JUST FINISHED HANGING OUT WITH NIKE IN OREGON. WE DISCUSSED CRIME FIGHTING AND THE PJ 22’S. HOPEFULLY THEY WILL MAKE THESE AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE. THEY ALSO HOOKED US UP WITH NEW SHOES AND CLOTHES. PICTURES SOON! NOW OFF TO MEET SABER AND MERCURY ABOUT JOINING THE ALLIANCE.’
I’m not making this up.
And in case you were wondering, the PJ 22’s are presumably the very sweet Nike concept runners I’ve pictured, lifted from a photo on his Facebook page. Along with the Nike swoosh on his utility belt. And, in case you hadn’t picked up the theme, a photo of him in a Nike cap.
I can only assume he hasn’t seen Mystery Men, where Captain Amazing, the greatest super-hero going around, is sponsored from cape to toe. Which turns out to be an issue.
The endorsement feels wrong to me, and I’m trying to work out why, beyond the bizarre image of him and a bunch of sports executives “discussing crime fighting” in a swanky Oregon board room. I wrote to Phoenix’s wall, saying I was stepping away, wishing him luck but saying that I didn’t think being a walking billboard was what he was about and I was disliking his page. It’s not often you can go toe-to-toe, ethically, with a genuine super-hero. Confusingly, he has since ‘liked‘ that post. So I am not sure if he agrees with my stance, or maybe just thinks it’s hilarious that an Australian hockey wannabe has dared to pipe up, or possibly he just ‘likes’ everything posted on his page. Who can question his super-motives?
The more I’ve thought about it, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. I mean, why shouldn’t he get Nike to pay him a fortune for the right to become the first sportswear company to actively brand a real-life superhero? Why the hell pay millions to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods when there are goddam super-heroes walking around? If you were a Nike company executive in Oregon, the idea of putting your brand on Phoenix would be pretty damn attractive. But if I was a marketing exec there, I’d be worrying about stomach ulcers. Because this one could go wrong. Sitting here, half a world away, in mostly gun-free Melbourne, I constantly worry for Phoenix Jones. He ain’t from Krypton and he ain’t safe from harm by the fact that his entire universe exists on a page, being written by someone like me who loves heroes and understands that no matter what obstacles a comic throws up, the hero will overcome. (And I have written two super hero novels, so I feel qualified to know the difference.) In actual Seattle, it feels like any day some gangbanger could ‘do a Nike’ but decide to make his mark by being the first corner-boy to pop a genuine super-hero. I totally hope I’m wrong. I think Phoenix and maybe even more so Purple Reign have done a lot of good and I admire them for their bravery and initiative.
But somehow, Phoenix Jones, brought to you by Nike, doesn’t have the same doing-this-for-justice ring that Phoenix has previously argued. It used to be that Phoenix was truly heroic because he was out there all night, at risk, helping the police, trying to be a force for good, very much at his own personal cost. Now it’s potentially for personal gain. That’s the worrying difference.
Maybe this is all swirling in my head because I have to give a talk at Swinburne tomorrow night (unpaid, for the record – speaking to graduate journalism students and even missing dev league to do it). I’ll be trying to impress on them the difficulty between writing what you love or what you know, and how to make a living from journalism or writing content (not necessarily the same thing) in this crazy new online media world. How do you not sell out and yet pay the rent? Especially when you can’t do what I did as a teenage Jimmy Olsen and somehow luck your way into a major metropolitan newspaper as a copyboy. That shit just hardly happens any more.
I’m not sure what the answers are, for Phoenix or me. God knows, filling his utility belt and having all that sweet armour made up must cost a bomb. Likewise, hockey has been an expensive sport for me to take up, what, with the equipment and the endless lessons and the practice sessions and the Summer League registration fees and the jerseys and the T-shirts that we just had to get to mark the final game … but I’m still in it for the love. On Saturday, the Spitfire Fighters played a final against the Wolverines at Oakleigh (sample video from my phone, below) and a bunch of us turned up, despite torrential rain, to watch and cheer, or do a live podcast or be volunteer officials or just to be involved in our sport, the lowest level of competitive hockey you can play for points. That’s how I like it.
Donning my blogging cape, I’ve decided to hold firm against commercialism for now, for the same reason. I might whack Google ads onto this site, to see what happens, if it brings in any easy sending money, because, shit, I’m writing the blog anyway, and don’t have to endorse products. But I don’t think I’m going to embrace the semi-regular offers of ‘quality content’. I wrote to a couple of these new blog-targeting companies, asking what they were planning to pay me for access to the editorial segment of my site; in other words, would they reward me for totally selling out my editorial credibility in the name of krill oil supplements or a gambling site? Oh, came the somewhat startled replies. We thought giving you free content would be payment in itself. Um, I guess we could pay you $50 … one offered $US150 a year to place articles or, better, to have me write articles for the blog, mentioning their brands.
Which wouldn’t stand out at all, would it? Not like the fantastic cars being offered by Larry Love, the greatest car salesman ever!*
I wrote back to one of the companies, explaining why I was opposed to krill oil as a supplement, because whales and other marine creatures need it to survive much more than ageing hockey hacks like me do to ease creaky joints. They didn’t reply. I don’t think they had foreseen a marine conservation stand from a hockey blogger, or maybe I’m just not cut out for commercialism. Oh well.
* (I can’t believe that Larry Love ad is real, but if it is and Larry, in the unlikely event you’re still in business, you can have that one for free.)