The national mood swing from zero Olympic medals and despair just days ago to a few handfuls and elation now — what is that? Why do so many of us feel involved, judgmental, euphoric or depressed by what others do over there? By what right do we respond so intensely to actions of individuals who are not us? It’s the mystery of collective identification. There are cases far easier to understand, like two world wars. Canada committed itself, more or less democratically, and its resources; most families had a direct connection, so they followed the battles closely.

Or international hockey matches. After all, it’s our game, we developed it over generations. Whether or not you like and play it, it’s part of the family history. But the attachment is odder in the case of athletes you never heard of doing things like synchronized diving that you didn’t know existed. I leave these matters shrouded in their rightful mystery. Some day, I’ll understand them better.

But the ads, the ubiquitous, pummelling ads, capitalize on this mystery. Have you noticed that, this year, they are less about selling products? They are all about aiding athletes, as if in this era of corporate misgovernance, the sponsors need an extra veneer of altruism: proclaiming with false modesty that it’s the athletes who matter but really congratulating themselves because, without their role, how would the athletes get to the Games (on Air Canada) or have time off (from Rona) to improve their skills.

Maybe the athletes wouldn’t exist at all without the backers. As if there couldn’t really have been an Olympics, could there, in ancient Athens? Did the discus throwers look around for a mightier power they sensed but couldn’t yet name: McDonald’s, Official Restaurant of the Olympic Games? On Wednesday, the CBC ran a nice piece on Port Alberni, B.C., wrestler Travis Cross, whose fellow firefighters and community rallied to support him — seeming to prove corporate sponsors may not be predestined — till at the item’s very end, two corporate logos appeared, lest we forget.

It’s this arrogance that’s irksome in the Olympic ads — as if people wouldn’t create or compete without corporate backing. They are the force that grounds the world, Olympian themselves. But people have always created and competed and always will. It’s like the Gothic cathedral art of the Middle Ages. Without the church, Michelangelo and those nameless artisans would still have created — they’d just have made different stuff. At least the church had the humility to defer to a higher sponsor. Think of 1960s adman Don Draper in the series Mad Men saying, “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Advertising has its own hubris, thinking it, too, created what it merely exploits. Creative is one of the ad world’s favourite terms. It only parasitizes creativity, as the church did. It rents it and often, though not always, diminishes it in the process.

For there are great moments in those Olympic ads, like the Bell one where swimmers, runners and gymnasts pass along the baton. It would be nice to think that, one day, the art of ads will be separated out from the spiel, and that it may even be happening now, in a new generation. Kids who have grown up with ads sometimes stop saying, Can I have that? and focus on the aesthetics. They become connoisseurs. A kid I know loves the RBC Olympics ad with the muffins. I asked if he knew they were selling something, and he said, “Sure.” I asked if he thought it worked, and he said, “No,” still staring at it, committing some component to memory, I think.

This way of viewing ads ought to chill Don Draper and the Mad Men. If they’re smart, they’ll keep it from their corporate buyers. On the other hand, the same kid, after pondering the issue a little longer, said: “Of course, you never really know, do you?”


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.