You’re here, so you know how this works. There’s this thing you’re interested in, and the signage attached: commercial breaks that interrupt shows, banner ads cluttering websites, the Academy Awards brought to you by Head & Shoulders, etc. You put up with it because sometimes the advertising pays for the thing you’re interested in, and more often because somebody’s optimizing their revenue and you’re helpless to stop it. Watching a sporting event, for instance, doesn’t need to be an exercise in staring at Ruffles and American Family Insurance logos for hours on end, but it just sort of is. The price of being interested in anything, circa now, is becoming a wallet with a pulse.
We resent the hell out of brands for doing this to us, but not so strongly that we reject them entirely, because that too is impossible. You want a bag of potato chips once in a while. You need insurance. And you’re not going to be able to find a company that will sell you either that isn’t obnoxious about trying to hook you as a customer. Every dollar we part with is in some respect the result of being condescended, pandered, and lied to. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of modern life. Sometimes I walk a mile to Lake Michigan and stare out at the blue nothing for a while, to feel apart from it all. Then I get bored, look at my phone—an advertisement delivery device that I willfully carry around in my pocket—and resume the rotten duty of being alive in the world.
There’s no escaping this feeling of being constantly pitched, short of dropping off the grid entirely, and so it makes a certain kind of sense that people, to make money and acquire some scant sense of agency and self-worth, would transform themselves into brands. (If you can’t beat ‘em, etc.) It’s a grim comment on society that human beings would want to become gleaming metal skulls with rubber skin stretched permanently into an uncanny smile, but sometimes it seems like companies are more important than people. (Who gets treated better, Blue Cross Blue Shield or the folks who need medical care?) Maybe it’s a logical thing to want; maybe it’s a form of desperation. It can be lucrative, at any rate. Kylie Jenner makes a million bucks per sponsored Instagram post, on nothing but her name and her cynicism.
But I’ve long wondered why professional athletes go in for any of this, because they are the opposite of desperate. They’re not inadequate; they know they’re in possession of special skills. They’re not struggling; they’re at the top of their fields. They’re not poor; they make obscene amounts of money. They’re about as free from all the awful things about being a person as you can get. If James Harden wanted to quit basketball tomorrow and retire to raise cattle in Jackson Hole, he could totally do that. Nobody would take away his MVP, or his cash, or the knowledge that he’s one of the best shooting guards to ever do it. He’s not going to hang it up because he’s competitive and enjoys draining step-back jumpers right in dudes’ faces, but he makes a choice, every day, to keep playing. He’s under no obligation but his own. And it’s a difficult (if glamorous) job, so his passion for it must be strong.
Is he similarly passionate about, like, State Farm? Shooting those commercials obviously isn’t as much work as a playoff series against the Warriors, but why bother with it at all? He doesn’t need the scratch and could be doing literally anything else with his time.
The Joel Embiid Experience has always stunk of brand-building. He arrived extremely online and has stayed that way into his mid-20s. He’s nicknamed himself The Process. He’s publicly thirsted after Rihanna. He’s metaphorically dunked on opponents whom he then went on to actually dunk on in subsequent games. It’s all been performed in the heightened, fav-chasing register of somebody who is Good At Twitter, and while that’s sort of annoying, it has also been ostensibly only in service of Embiid’s ego. He likes attention, getting a rise out of people, popping off about stuff that he then has to prove out on the court. It’s good or lousy fun, depending on your appetite for emoji cascades and replacement-level insult comedy, but it is at least just slightly kayfabe-y self-expression, serving no grander purpose than to make Embiid chuckle.
But of course he was going to weaponize it at some point. Headline: “Joel Embiid is on the fast track to global marketing stardom.” In the story beneath it, Tim McMahon hypes the big man’s now-finalized signature shoe megadeal with Under Armour, quotes some nonsense from a CAA agent, and Embiid talks about how his online presence “definitely helps the brand.” This isn’t surprising, and it isn’t really even news, but it is depressing, the sure-as-sunrise pivot of yet another NBA star toward product-hawking. It’s what everybody in Joel Embiid’s situation does. They take their awesome talent (and in Embiid’s case, a flamboyant personality) and apply it toward telling you to buy a pair of sneakers, a gaming headset, a breakfast burrito. Everything they do from that point forward, in some small way, functions as corporate propaganda.
This sucks, especially because Embiid doesn’t have to do it. The Sixers are paying him $25 million this season. I sense that I’m in the minority here, but if my job paid me $25 million per year, money wouldn’t get me out of bed to do anything else. Verizon could offer to buy me an island if I sent out a nice tweet about them, and I’d tell them to go screw. Because Verizon is an awful company, and even if they weren’t, why would I let anybody purchase me when I’m already financially set for life?
If this sounds moralizing, it’s because it is, but I’m not blaming Joel Embiid so much as pointing out that what looks like an inevitability is actually a choice. Embiid could just go on being his goofy Yung Olajuwonish self, balling and trolling, and let that pay the bills. He’s not going to do that because, going on available evidence, easy money is apparently impossible to turn down. But he’s contributing, albeit infinitesimally, to a much larger problem by not doing so. We’re all choking, all the time on a miasma of marketing. We’re all getting sick from it. Only a few of us are enriching ourselves in the process. Perhaps that’s what victory looks like in late capitalism: dying a little more luxuriously, with a logo stamped on your forehead.
More 2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic