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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

There's No Such Thing as Free Chowda

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
E-Mail: WillWalsh@aol

Who would ever think that handing out free stuff could start a controversy?

Well, soon commuters in Boston will be handed a coupon for a free bowl of chowder at Legal Sea Foods as they pay their tolls in the tunnel. Cool, huh?

Neighborly. Welcome to Boston! Nice to see ya! Have some free chowda!

Such a simple gesture of warmth, however, raises a number of interesting questions when advertisers pay the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to distribute their promotional materials. Legal Sea Foods is paying the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority $148,000 to conduct the giveaway.

It's good business for Legal Sea Foods, obviously, to have state employees give out their coupons, especially for something so quintessentially Boston as chowder.

And the Turnpike Authority makes out on the deal, too.

But it raises some interesting - and disturbing - questions.

Does this give the state's "seal of approval" to Legal Sea Foods? Does this mean that they endorse that one particular restaurant? Or one particular prod uct at the restaurant? What else will be advertised in or on state roads; what other promotions will use state employees to benefit private companies?

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman James Kerasiotes has already thought about those questions, but apparently not very deeply. "No lacy lingerie," he promised, when asked about what products will be promoted by turnpike officials. Also, no cigarettes or alcohol.

Odd. The last I heard, those were all legal products. I guess the state will advertise SOME products, but not others. Maybe SOME products are more legal than others.

Oh, my!

How will they decide which ones?

Maybe by simply selling the services of toll collectors to the highest bidder? No, THAT wouldn't work. If I paid the state a couple of hundred thousand bucks to hand out flyers for "Willy's Gun Shop," I don't think they'd do it.

Or would they?

Should they?

Might there be a problem if the state is put in a position of promoting products which they're supposed to regulate? Taking money from the very companies which they are supposed to oversee?

And in the midst of this comes another really silly comment from another media-illiterate state official. Bob Bliss, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, said," Most people can recognize what's advertising these days."

They can?

What about those signs along the highway that look just like official state signs which tell you that McDonald's is at the next exit or that a 24-hour Shell station is two miles down the road? Are those ads or public service announcements? I suppose it depends on how hungry you are or how badly you have to use the restrooms. Advertising these days has become SO omnipresent, SO subliminal that it's doubtful that ANY of us is aware of all the ads we're subjected to.

Plans are already afoot to also carry advertising on state tunnel and turnpike receipts.

It's the old "camel's nose under the tent" problem. I mean, first the camel sticks his nose in the tent, and if you don't stop it right away, pretty soon you're sharing the whole tent with a camel. I don't know this from personal experience, of course, but many years ago I let a little whimpering puppy up on the bed "for just one night." She's still there. Even if you don't have a camel, you get the idea.

Should the state be handing out advertising material for private restaurants?

Don't get me wrong. I like chowder. And I'm all in favor of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority getting additional money from anybody but me.

But I do wonder if in a few years we'll see ads for pizza parlors on our town tax bills, coupons for septic services stuck into our water bills, or discount cards for tires in our automobile excise tax bills.


I forget who said, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," but whoever it was, he was right. There's no such thing as free chowder, either. We'll pay for it one way or another.

Whether it's worth turning our government into an advertising agency is the only question we need to decide.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.