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Voodoo Dolls and Hate Talk
by Paul Gardner, January 29th, 2009 7AM



Well, well! Such a brilliant idea from a Mexican newspaper -- Let's whip up support for the Mexican national team by giving away voodoo dolls. Suitably dressed up in the colors of the USA, the dolls would then be available for fans to stick pins into or cut limbs off, or set fire to, or possibly blow up with semtex, who knows.

The newspaper Record was able to sell that promotion to a sponsor. At which point something happened to this brilliant idea. Possibly the sponsors saw that it wasn't such a great idea, that it really was, in fact, rather tasteless. Possibly. But rather more likely is that the ramifications of soccer's global economy played a large part.

Because the sponsor that had originally agreed to back the lovely voodoo dolls turned out to be the Mexican subsidiary of an American company. None other than RadioShack. No doubt RadioShack has quite a few more American than Mexican customers, and no doubt that fact weighed rather heavily on the minds of the company.

They acted quickly. RadioShack withdrew from the promotion with a flurry of state-of-the-art public relations statements that neatly eased the company out of a tricky situation. Evidently someone down in Mexico had made a pretty bad error of judgment. That, of course, was not admitted, but there was a gentle hint that maybe someone had been a little naive as the press release spoke of "our recently acquired operation in Mexico."

It was all done in the right spirit, it seems, as it reflected "a desire to support their national team." Right. The danger of yet another humiliation by the USA in the Feb. 11 game in Columbus was too much to bear. It has been 10 years since Mexico -- which used to romp all over the USA wherever the games were played -- had beaten the USA on American soil. Something had to be done. Beating up voodoo dolls was the answer.

For RadioShack to be identified with such a nationalistic program was probably not a good idea. It made that clear by sweetly wishing "the very best of luck" to both Mexico and the United States, and for good measure extended its blessings to all the other Concacaf teams still involved in World Cup qualifying.

What made the Record's brainwave such a potentially disastrous idea was that the promotion was blatantly anti-USA. Rather nastily so, too. One of the scheme's illustrations showed a USA voodoo doll having its leg snipped off with a pair of scissors. Not to worry, it was all in fun, said the newspaper, not to be taken seriously. It's only a game, after all.

A coincidence. Just a week earlier, Alexi Lalas had said the same thing, appearing on Mexican television, as he tried to talk his way out of his "I hate Mexico!" rant on ESPN. Suddenly Lalas was all smiles and geniality (two things he does extremely well), claiming to wonder what all the fuss was about.

And that is exactly the response from the Record marketing manager on hearing that RadioShack had washed its hands of the deal -- "It surprises us," he said. Oh, come off it, guys. Both the Record and Lalas know damn well that they're stirring things up and that they're going to offend people. But that's part of the deal, part of the marketing game. Lalas got the publicity he evidently sought, he got on Mexican TV, and maybe his venom will have added a couple of viewers to the ESPN2 telecast of the Columbus game. And the Record got plenty of publicity for its voodoo dolls (allegedly it has manufactured 10,000 of them, all suitably dressed up in the U.S. national team uniform, whatever that is this week) and will probably find another -- impeccably Mexican -- sponsor for the campaign.

We'll be getting a lot more of this sort of thing, no doubt. It is noticeable that whenever the marketing people get involved in soccer promotions, stupidity usually triumphs. It would be nice to draw a line under that, and say who cares anyway, it doesn't matter -- it's only a game. To echo the very words of the geniuses who dream up these imbecilic ideas.

But is it that simple? Does supporting a soccer team have to involve hating, does it have to call up images of slicing limbs off voodoo dolls? There is no escaping the fact that national teams embody nationalism, and that can turn nasty -- but the nastiness shouldn't be getting encouragement from the marketing people or the television guys. Can that really be deemed part of the fun? I'd like to think not.


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