The Schmios: An Award Ceremony with a Twist

It goes without saying that the commercial intrusion into public life has gone far beyond epidemic proportions. We should probably replace "In God We Trust" with "Brands Are Us" on all our legal tender; it would be more honest, wouldn't it?Most alarming is the intrusion of ads into places that used to be "commercial-free zones" -- schools and school buses, public radio and TV, sidewalks, movies and movie previews, art museums, public buildings and, of course, the Internet, where the commercial take over has been swift and mind-boggling. It's hard to think of any environment that hasn't been branded by some corporate logo.Often it gets so ridiculous that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Well, the inventive people behind the 4th Annual Schmio Awards have opted for laughter, but instead of laughing with commercialization, they're laughing at it.The Schmios, a project of the New York University Department of Culture and Communication, is a mock award ceremony that pokes fun at the outrageous world of corporate advertising. The ceremony is a satirical response to the Clios, the annual awards given to the most successful or creative ads that ooze out of Madison Avenue (though the Schmios aren't allowed to mention the word Clios). Instead of saluting ways to squeeze profits out of all of our pockets, the Schmios aim to remind people that some things should not be for sale. At the Schmios ceremony, which will take place on April 13 in New York City, some dozen or so awards will be presented and received by a slew of notable guests and media personalities.Without revealing too much and puncturing the suspense, it can be known that one of the awards -- "For the Commercialization of the Public Trust," which goes to the Teletubbies/Burger King co-marketing deal -- will be given by the most non-commercial person you'll ever meet: Amy Goodman, the host of the Pacifica Radio show Democracy Now. Another award, to be presented by Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, will go to the ZapMe! Corp., an Internet company that lends computers to schools in exchange for requiring four hours of daily surfing -- with each student assigned an ID number that allows ZapMe! to gather marketing data on him or her.Well-known media critic Mark Crispin Miller, the Billy Crystal of the Schmios, will once again be reigning over the event. When asked why we need the Schmios, Miller explained: "More and more Americans are becoming mindful of the risks -- economic, environmental, social, political, aesthetic and psychological -- of an unrestrained commercialism. The Schmios serves not only to express a sort of outrage that generally doesn't get a hearing, but also to laud some of the effective efforts to improve the situation. The point is also to have serious fun, as opposed to the utterly superficial and forgettable kind that advertising offers us."This year, for the first time there will be three "positive" Schmios, in recognition of achievements in the war against commercialism. For example, Arianna Huffington will present a "Schmio-plus" to Commercial Alert, a DC-based coalition of progressive and conservative activists that have done good work combating such companies as ZapMe! and Channel One, which provides public schools with "educuational" televisions programs that carry heavy commercial messages.Several of the Schmio awards are aimed at online efforts. Miller observes that, ironically, the Internet -- often touted as the Information Superhighway -- has exacerbated commercialism in the public sphere."Life on the Information Superhighway is an endless super-riot of advertising far beyond the wildest dreams of yesteryear's most ruthless admen," Miller points out. "The Internet is fast becoming an unbounded cyber-mall; and its crammed, hectic style -- ads upon ads upon ads -- has spread throughout the older media of print and television. Sometimes the same technology that bombards us also offers us the possibility of some escape, as is the case with Napster (a technology that allows the sharing of music files). But every such advance is met with vast resistance by the corporate powers that love us only for our money, and therefore tend to give us nothing we love."A new addition to the Schmios will be an award given in honor of the late Herb Schiller, one of pioneers in documenting commercial intrusion into public life, particularly with his classic book "Media Culture Inc." Schiller, who died last year, taught for many years at NYU. Neil Postman, the current Department of Culture and Communication chair, will be giving the first Schiller Award to Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader, in recognition of Nader life's work against corporate power and commercial excess. Postman, Miller and media critic Todd Gitlin form a trio of public intellectuals at NYU who have effectively bridged the gap between the academic and the public realms.This year's ceremony promises to be a fun, irreverant event. If you're in New York, don't hesitate to drop a few bucks for admission -- $3 for students with ID and $10 for the general public. The awards will be held at NYU's Saklad Auditorium, First Avenue at 24th Street; for tickets call 212-998-5635. For more info, visit the Schmio's Web site:

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