Brand Upon The Brain

Darren Rovell has been kicked around a lot this week. He deserves it, but he's also just doing his job.
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The most interesting thing about what has been a rough last week for ESPN writer and human GoDaddy.com commercial Darren Rovell, if there's anything all that interesting about it, is that it went by without a signature Rovell mini-outrage until early on Thursday. This isn't to say that Rovell wasn't offensive in his usual smaller, lower register—he was, of course, although this was the milder sort of offense that doubles as Rovell simply doing his chosen gig. In Rovell's Twitter bio, that job is defined as "sports business reporter," which is maybe accurate enough until it becomes hugely inaccurate.

The rough outline of the job appears to be this: Rovell spends most of the day on Twitter, delivering various factoids about recognizable brands and things that are happening to or with them. Imagine a high-def screen bearing some giddy-gross advertising messageswinging out unbidden from a lamppost in some dystopian-quasi-present George Saunders story, and you're close—the majority of Rovell's communication takes the form of a blurt/burp in which the name of a well-known brand appears somewhere near the name of a famous person and, if possible, an implausibly precise dollar figure that assesses the value of that relationship. When Marco Rubio interrupted his cottonmouthed Reagan-karaoke routine after Tuesday's State of the Union address for a sip from a small bottle of Poland Spring water, I joked that Rovell would pull together a tidbit explaining the value of that on-camera sip. That joke, which was not even quite a joke, preceded Rovell's actual tweet—which noted the brand placement and mentioned Poland Spring's popularity and 2012 sales—by just a few minutes.

I haven't followed Rovell on Twitter for some time, mostly because I feel as if I'm getting enough opportunities to Interact With My Favorite Brands and Celebrate My Preferences every day as it is. I find out when Rovell has done something especially Rovell-ian—something dishonest or skeevy or otherwise reflective of his Aspergersian inability to recognize that there are times when the power or presence of some brand or other is not the most important thing—thanks to my Twitter feed, which erupts briefly in a chorus of "this fucking guy"'s and sarcastic thrashings and the other crashes and clanks of last straws settling into place. He can be more or less offensive in the doing of it, but this is finally just Rovell doing Rovell's job, which is to be a little machine that extrudes branded factoids onto the social media conveyer belt like so many pallid, spongy boiled hams, bound to disappoint and dehydrate customers at the world's saddest delis. It's depressing, but luckily there is no requirement that anyone know or care who Rovell is, or listen to him when he talks, or read what he writes. He could not be easier to ignore.

His work cries out for that ignoring, in fact. The majority of Rovell's writing, at least at ESPN, is as rote, abstracted and joyless as his tweets: he mostly repurposes press releases about various developments—the Yankees have a new ticket resale plan with Ticketmaster, or Jell-O's Super Bowl marketing stunt. ("We lost our core family consumer," Jell-O's senior brand manager told Rovell. "We want them to know that we're about fun.") There is some writing and we can only presume some small amount of talking on the phone involved in this part of Rovell's job, but it doesn't exactly feel like reporting—there is no story being followed from one stage to the next, no palpable angle being taken, no perspective in evidence. The business of sports is interesting, but that's not what Rovell is covering so much as he's covering the brandstunts that are designed to synergize and coincide with sports things, and which are targeted at people who watch sports.

It's worth wondering whether anyone would want to read a long story on Jell-O's marketing plan to reach and recapture football viewers, but Rovell isn't writing that story, anyway. The gambit is the thing, and Rovell covers these various brandstunts with the weary dutifulness of a White House pool reporter, appends the relevant sales figures at the end of the story (or tweet) to show his work, and moves on to the next.

So there isn't really a proper name for what Rovell does, because it's new, and because he seems to be re-imagining it on the fly. Every day he tweets the book. It's a shitty book, of course. But its shittiness and his isn't really new, or news.

***

If there's something offensive about the job that Rovell has—and there is plenty, actually, most of which can be traced to the way it repurposes journalism into another spam funnel—the thing that seems persistently to bother people about it is how he does it. Will Leitch dropped a daisy cutter of an anti-tribute on Rovell at Sports On Earth, and it's less about Rovell's awful cynical job than it is about what an asshole he is in the doing of it. Tom Ziller, in what might be a more damaging critique, went to the trouble of laying out Rovell's weird and gratuitous dishonesty in the trollish pursuit of a Twitter spat over the question of whether Sacramento deserved to keep the Kings; Rovell, unsurprisingly, was taking the position that Sacramento just didn't have what it takes.

This is Rovell when he's at home, it seems: a Trump-ian kicker of "losers," a cheerlead-y booster of any and all business "innovation"—not so much a free market fanboy as something more like a marketing enthusiast. There may well be some expertise in this field buried in Rovell's flat-affect press release reiteration, but it's not easy to find in either his tweets or his longer writing—the sales numbers and out-of-nowhere value assessments ("That swig of Gatorade was worth $113,455!") take the place of context, and quotes pulled from press releases stand in for the perspective that could have come from those who have some to lend. Compilation, recitation: that's all that Rovell asks of himself, but more damningly it seems to be just about all that Rovell's job asks of him.

If Rovell is a jerk on his spare time—bragging on his six-figure Twitter following, a full 48 percent of which consists of active accounts owned by humans, per Status People; grousing that they don't make Playmates like they used to; pulling for a basketball team to desert an unfashionable city—the bigger problem would seem to be what he does at work. This week's Rovell outrage came when, with his characteristic tact and perspective, Rovell noted that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius was wearing an Oakley sweatshirt when he was led from his home by police after being arrested in the shooting death of his girlfriend. He followed it with a torrent of Rovellian reportage—the statements issued by Pistorius' various sponsors, updates on the status of advertising campaigns that featured Pistorius. There was a photo of a Pistorius billboard coming down, although there was no indication of whether it was connected to the arrest; Rovell simply took the photo (with attribution) from the Instagram of a South African marketer and posted it as his own Twitpic.

And Twitter roiled as it does. This fucking guy, who could follow him and why, et fumingly cetera. By early afternoon, Rovell had moved on, tweeting without context the dollar figures that college football television and radio rights were worth in 1970. It's maybe unfair to knock a tweet for a lack of context: there are only so many characters available, after all. But this, as much as that crass tweet about the brand impact of a maybe-murderer's sweatshirt or the ones that will invariably follow it, was just Rovell at work, doing the job he has been given to do, and for the doing of which he is paid handsomely. It's not a question of characters or space so much as it is of expectation: give Rovell as much money as ABC and ESPN give him, give him as many characters as there are and all the time in the world, and this sort of poker-faced horrorshow is what you will always get.

It's all Rovell seems capable of giving, and that's on him and that's a shame. His bosses have continually told him that it's enough, and paid and promoted him as if it were valuable, and that's incalculably worse. His excuse is being Darren Rovell. What's theirs?


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