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What Rhymes With Sweatshop?

In October, when the idea was still fresh toner on the Xerox machines at the San Francisco offices of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners -- who produced the Poetry Slam commercials for Nike -- poets around the country began receiving faxes soliciting their contributions to the ad campaign.It's only a guess, but here's a stab at re-creating the boardroom conversation that spawned the "Nike Poetry Slam" ad campaign that will hit the airwaves during the upcoming Winter Olympics.Ad exec #1: We're losing our hip, cutting-edge with the youth market. We need some ideas here, people!Overpaid "youth market" consultant: Hey, I've got an idea. A few friends of mine are always talking about the poetry slams in the Village. What if we had a Nike Poetry Slam?Ad exec #1: Hmmm É That could work ÉAd exec #3: Yeah, that one has some potential. Let's kick it around a bit here. What specifically are you talking about?Overpaid consultant: I dunno. I just think if we could get Nike's name associated with the image of poets, coffeehouses, jazz. "Beat generation" stuff is big these days. Only more body-piercing.Ad exec #3: Alright. So who do we get? Ginsberg?Overpaid consultant: He's dead.Ad exec #3: So who's left?Overpaid consultant: No. You're missing the point. You get poets who are coming up now. You know. Have your producer send out letters to a few hundred poets who won PEN Awards, National Book Awards and so on over the last, say, 10 years. Send 'em videotapes of Nike athletes, and have them write whatever comes to mind.Ad exec #3: And we put their poems in our commercials?Overpaid consultant: Yep. Goddam revolutionary, ain't it?Ad exec #1: I think we have a campaign here.Ad exec #2: Uh É guys?Ad exec #1: Yes, Monroe?Ad exec #2: What's a "poetry slam"?However it was spawned, the "Nike Poetry Slam" campaign invaded television sets around the country during the televised coverage of the '98 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan..In October, when the idea was still fresh toner on the Xerox machines at the San Francisco offices of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners -- who produced the Poetry Slam commercials for Nike -- poets around the country began receiving faxes soliciting their contributions to the ad campaign.Amherst poet and UMass Professor Martin Espada received one such pitch. In addition to the letter asking Espada to do his research and produce a poem in less than three weeks, the ad agency sent a two-page list of rules for Nike Poetry Slam participants.The agency offered $250 for any submission and $2,500 for the winning submissions, which will make their way into one of four Nike commercials featuring Olympic athletes. (The spots apparently are not considered commercials at all times; at one point in the introductory letter, the commercials are referred to as "short films.")"We would like to celebrate four of the most remarkable of the new women athletes in a series of commercial films that will run during the Olympic telecasts," the submission proposal reads. "You each have a voice, outlook and perspective on the world that we feel mirrors in some fashion the spirit these athletes possess."It continues: "Ultimately, of course, you are free to write anything you want. We will not censor your thoughts or opinions or feelings. You don't have to write about shoes or even mention Nike. This is not meant to be a commercial: It is meant to be a showcase for these athletes and for your work. (For legal reasons, you should not include references to the Olympics, Games or medals. And keep in mind TV network standards and practices regarding content and language.)"It must be possible for your poem to be read out loud in less than 30 seconds. (Otherwise, we may have to edit your piece for time.) Unfortunately, the mechanics of commerce outweigh the demands of art in this instance."Espada, whose work has consistently criticized American cultural imperialism, such as that conveyed on commercial television and in television commercials, rejected the offer. His response:I could reject your offer based on the fact that your deadline is ludicrous (i.e. ten days from the above date). A poem is not a pop tart.I could reject your offer based on the fact that I would not be free to write whatever I want, notwithstanding your assurances to the contrary, since I must "keep in mind TV network standards and practices regarding content and language." You clearly have no idea what the word "censorship" means. Where, as you put it, "the mechanics of commerce outweigh the demands of art," then de facto censorship will flourish.I could reject your offer based on the fact that, to make this offer to me in the first place, you must be totally and insultingly ignorant of my work as a poet, which strives to stand against all that you and your client represent. Whoever referred me to you did you a grave disservice.I could reject your offer based on the fact that your client, Nike, has through commercials such as these outrageously manipulated the youth market, so that even low-income adolescents are compelled to buy products they dot need at prices they cannot afford.Ultimately, however, I am rejecting your offer as a protest against the brutal labor practices of Nike. I will not associate myself with a company that engages in the well-documented exploitation of workers in sweatshops. Please spare me the shameless dishonesty of the usual corporate response: there's no problem, and besides we're working on it. I suggest instead that you take the $2,500 you now dangle before me and distribute that money equally among the laborers in an Asian sweatshop doing business with Nike. The funds would be much more useful to them than to me. Thank you.The mechanics of art outweighed the demands of commerce, in this instance.

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