Tuesday, May 12

Tearing Down Definitions: From Phelps To Prejean

Michael Phelps is an American swimmer. He has won 14 career Olympic gold medals and holds seven world records in swimming.

A few months after his most recent successes, he apologized for "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment" in response to a photo that depicted him using a Bong. The controversy cost Phelps a few sponsorships. And some former sponsors a few sales.

Now, the News of the World, which broke the photo, is trying to spark another scandal. This time the story is based on testimony from lap dancer Theresa White, who alleges Phelps is great at lovemaking but not much of a tipper.

"They were there a couple of hours and asked three of us back," White told News of the World. "Michael was a bad tipper but he was nice to me, although he was kind of mean and cocky to some of the girls."

What Is An All-American Image Anyway?

Who's to say? According to the outrage expressed over Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA, the concept seems open for debate. She told the truth, and it took Donald Trump to set the record straight while smartly avoiding the issue all together.

Perez Hilton, on the other hand, has enjoyed a free ride calling Prejean the “b-word,” rescinding it, and then rescinding what he rescinded, adding that he was thinking of the “c-word.” Why? Because most people didn't hear Prejean's entire answer, which began "Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other ..."

Is Being All-American An Impossible Image?

Maybe so. After all, the all-American image cannot be lived up to because any number of definitions seem to supposedly disparage one person or another. Just as people are divided on a spectacular number of issues and tolerance just isn't enough, so too are people divided on whether or not anyone deserves praise for greatness.

When and where I grew up, the all-American image was pretty well defined — baseball, apple pie, and the red, white and blue — despite being imaginary. It was pretty simple. If Norman Rockwell might have painted it, you might be in the right ball park, even if such a ball park never existed, not really. Yet, the sentiment was there. We were taught to strive for greatness; not in fame, but simply trying to do our best at whatever it was we did.

Today, it's not always so easy. Baseball is supposedly tainted, apple pies reinforce stereotypes, and the American flag means different things depending on where you fly it or not. And greatness? Sometimes it's frowned upon as a badge you have something more than someone else.

You know, usually, when we talk about the The Fragile Brand Theory, we talk about why it is more important to stick with one image rather than the image one might pick. It's why Trump can be Trump and Hilton can be Hilton. But there is something more at work here than Phelps or Prejean failing to reach the unobtainable image that the public apparently sought for them.

It seems to me that Phelps or Prejean or anyone else who strives for greatness can never live up to an all-American image. Because most Americans no longer want one.


Anonymous said...

This guy is the greatest swimmer in the world! People should leave him alone. I don't care much for the olympics but people should let him do what he wants!

Rich on 5/13/09, 2:11 PM said...


I've been considering whether Phelps ever wanted the all-American image or if he simply went a long with it for a spell. It's hard to say.

Huh. Once again, if you don't manage the message, the message will manage you.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that our nation has an increasing “decency deficit.” Instead of maintaining a live-and-let-live attitude, instead of treating others as we would like to be treated, people are all too willing to look down their noses.

Perez Hilton—an enlightened voice of acceptance? Carry Prejean—a bigoted, intolerant hater? The fact that a growing segment of our society does’t see any contradiction here is, well, a little scary.

Ken O

Anonymous said...

Oops! “Carrie” Guess I need another class in proofreading ;)


Rich on 5/14/09, 11:10 AM said...

Hey Ken,

I don't sweat the comment section so much; there are many comments of mine I wish I could edit. Of course, if you say that in my class, I might deny it. Ha ha.

Your point still stands out. Brands are fragile things, but popularity sometimes masks that fragility ... for now.

Hilton has made a career out of mocking celebrities, which is much easier for the public to obtain, relate, and accept to expect. Prejean aimed to rise above, which leaves little room for being human. In sum, the latter path is harder and perhaps unobtainable.

It is a contradiction. In total, her message was one of tolerance, appropriately separated by personal belief. For spokesperson purposes, however, I might have told the class that where she ended her sentence made all the difference, e.g., "Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other." Period.



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