NEW YORK — On Thanksgiving morning, I turned on the TV to watch the Macy's Parade on NBC. What I expected to see was a tribute to children's delight as they catch sight of the giant balloons bobbing high above the city streets. What I expected to hear was extended commentary on the sparkle in the eyes of parents and grandparents, smiling at the children's joy. Instead, what I found was one big promotion for products and people.
Each time the commentators mentioned a balloon or float, they cited the corporate sponsor. When the Clifford balloon bounced by, the commentary was that book sales have surpassed $110,000,000. When Angelina Ballerina appeared, the TV audience learned that videos are available. The actors on the "Wild West" float, we were told, were the cast of NBC's program, "Happy Family," which, we heard, can be seen on Tuesdays at 9:30. As the mustachioed Mr. Monopoly, from the game, "Monopoly," floated high above, the comment was that he'd like to keep all of his money, and that his favorite place is Fort Knox.
Information about one float, "celebrated by Marshmallow Peeps," was that more than 1 billion Peeps have been produced. We learned that Maurice Sendak's book, "Where the Wild Things Are," has sold more than 5.5 million copies. We heard that each fuel stop a Georgia high school group made on its way to participate in the parade had cost $1,000. Performers were introduced as "superstars" and "No. 1 entertainment teams," with "smash-hit CDs," and "spectacular" new shows.
During the hour that I watched, it seemed that every five minutes there were three minutes of commercials for banks, Macy's, NBC, a movie, cars, toys, McDonald's, a Disney video, cruises, and Pepsi.
Life in our culture has become one big advertisement. As I watched the parade, I kept thinking about the messages being transmitted to the children watching the program - buy the video, admire the superstar because he or she has sold millions of copies of a CD, focus on money (and like Mr. Monopoly, if you have it, keep it).
Unfortunately, the TV broadcast of the Thanksgiving parade didn't represent a single, isolated incident of crass consumerism. As we all know, TV, magazines, and newspapers increasingly are filled with ads. Our mailboxes, real and virtual, are filled daily with junk mail asking us for money. The walls of sports arenas are covered with ads. The campus telephone directory of a major Ivy League university has two ads, for a car dealer, on the margins of every page. Is it now the Macy's Parade of products to be sold to a TV audience?We might have to say, "No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, unless he is brought to you by our sponsor."
Yet perhaps there is some hope for the miracle that would restore to our culture some of those values that transcend money and make life worthwhile.
After all, on Thanksgiving Day, NBC also showed the 1947 classic movie, "Miracle on 34th Street," about the Macy's Santa who was the real Santa, Kris Kringle. He carried gifts of "kindness and joy and love" wherever he went. Because of him, a little girl learned that "if things don't turn out at first, you still have to believe." The film imparted its essential message of good, the importance of faith in love, and faith in believing in things "even in the face of common sense."
The film told us about goodness in life, not about goods and how much they cost. Long live that miracle on 34th Street.
• Ellen Chances is professor of Russian literature and culture at Princeton University.