Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title at last Sunday’s Wimbeldon Championship, making him the most decorated player in the history of men’s tennis. The cameras followed him to the sidelines, where he immediately donned a white track jacket with a gold Nike logo on one breast, a gold RF logo on the other, and the number 15 embroidered on the right flank, also in gold. Then the broadcast cut to two commercials that congratulated Federer for his superlative achievement. Indeed, throughout the entire match viewers witnessed the coexistence of the champion Federer and the commercial Federer. He battled Andy Roddick live on center court, and then he sold products for Rolex and Nike during the breaks. His commercial presence pervaded every aspect of his greatest professional achievement.
As Federer traveled to England to stage his most audacious public spectacle, Sacha Baron Cohen departed for a similar reason. For the past few months, the British comedian has been pumping America’s entertainment outlets dry to promote his new film Bruno, which premieres this Friday. From talk shows to magazines to social media to staged stunts, Cohen appeared in character across the country to deliver the wacky hijinks that made Borat a household name. But like Federer, Cohen’s promotional fervor threatens to overwhelm his professional output. After this relentless blitz of bleached hair and short shorts, his character feels worn out before his debut, and the films looks like an afterthought next to its behemoth marketing campaign.
Of course, none of this is new in hyper-capitalistic America. Spokespeople rush the floor with hats after every championship in mainstream sports, and overzealous promotion accompanies the release of every major-studio film. But Federer and Cohen stand apart from this crowd because they do not represent a commercial entity or product; they are advertising themselves as semi-real people.
A team is an abstract entity, so it’s easy for fans to insinuate themselves into that team, which turns the buying of hats into an act of communal celebration. But Federer plays only for himself, so even a die-hard fan would find it difficult to share in Federer’s achievement. They can celebrate for him, but not with him as Boston might with the Patriots after a Super Bowl win. Federer’s championship merchandise, then, comes across as self-serving because the player and his commercial presence are synonymous.
Cohen’s promotional campaign feels similarly out of place. This happens because his PR schtick hews too close to the content of his movie. In the film, Bruno appears on a talk show and acts ridiculous. Then, Cohen appears on a talk show as Bruno and does the same thing to promote the film. Not only does this technique neutralize the premise of his comedy — the character is only funny when his target is not in on the joke — but it also damages the credibility of the character in the film itself. Cohen undermines the subversive note he aims to hit by using the “controversial” Bruno as a P.T. Barnum-esque shill with a marketing budget as big as Michael Bay’s. Like Federer, Bruno represents both craft and commercial, and both suffer as a result.
But these cases of selling out are complicated by the considerable achievements that gave both men the option to sell out in the first place. After all, Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player ever, and Cohen toiled for years on hilarious independent shows before breaking through in America. No one would deny that they have both earned whatever spoils they can wring out of the public.
Perhaps that’s what makes these cases so sad: the realization that these two greats have reached the public-wringing stages of their careers. Federer only prevailed in his last two Grand Slams because the indomitable Raphael Nadal was sidelined by injury. In fact, Federer may not even hold his “most-titles” trophy for long; Nadal is well on pace to surpass him. As for Cohen, he has exhausted his stable of characters, and if people were not sick of his style after Borat, they certainly will be after Bruno. Both men have probably reached their last, best chance to cash in before they lose their edge for good. It’s just a shame when the final act of a spectacular career is to compromise one’s hard-earned integrity.