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America's flying billboard

A couple of weeks ago Raoul Ramirez was playing in the finals of a tennis tournament. The August sun beat down on the clay court, and Ramirez wore a cap with visor to shade himself. A curious white patch centered itself above the visor where an insignia, or at least a patch of color, is expected. Ramirez, it appears, had been asked to conceal a logo that could be construed as free advertising by viewers of the televised match.

What restraint! What delicacy of feeling! That was our first innocent thought , recalling the days when a teen-age Bjorn Borg pranced on court as a walking billboard. Every flat surface on him, from socks to shoulder patches it seemed, carried commercial messages by sporting goods firms and even, if memory serves, a Swedish airline.

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Then we realized that nothing had really changed in this world where court enclosures are plastered with manufacturers' names and almost every tournament is named after its sponsor -- the North Shore West Side Uptown Savings and Loan Classic, and so on.

What we were witnessing in the case of the Ramirez hat was not advertising restraint but the fury of those who had paid for their space, directed against the intrusion of a freeloader.

It was a good match, in spite of the fact that the man with the hat lost. We were glad to watch it, and as a television viewer we were grateful to acknowledge that it was all made possible by. . . .

Well, we've forgotten the sponsor.

But the point is, sometimes advertising, like everything else in life, is just fine, and sometimes it goes too far.

After being exposed -- or rather, not exposed -- to the Ramirez hat, we learned of plans to introduce advertising into the movies and the music programs that airlines provide in flight. Indeed, 11 airlines are already showing what are known as ''corporate featurettes,'' like the Xerox short subject on the office of the future. But hard-sell commercials of the sort used on TV are being tested, and in-flight movies could be broken up with all the foot-in-the-plot grace of your late-night show.

Meanwhile, a company called Broadcast International, owned by Osmond Enterprises, is hoping to insert ''messages of importance'' into the headphones of passengers, along, presumably, with songs by Donny and Marie.

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In both cases the hard-pressed airlines will be paid by advertisers for use of the plane.

This, we submit, is an instance of carrying the theory of a captive audience too far. At 30,000 feet, strapped into your seat, you have a minimum of choices. You cannot leave the room. Only flight attendants are allowed to stick their heads in the refrigerator and sniff for snacks -- the normal evasion action at home.

After reading about these ominous developments in the sky - the moral equivalent of hijacking, we say -- we had a dream. A flight attendant materialized before our eyes to deliver the following speech:

''Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for flying Pan-World Airlines. The flight attendant at the front of your cabin is displaying a flotation cushion, made with tender loving care by Cork-So-Soft, the first name in flotation cushions. You can read their ad on the emergency instructions card in front of your seat.

''When our cruising level is reached, we will bring you your nourishing meal, packaged by Fast Foods Inc., the number one innovator in protein substitutes. Don't worry if you spill a little imitation soy sauce. The cabin carpeting, by Miracle Tuft, is as spot-proof as it is foot-caressing.

''Meanwhile, enjoy the view out your windows, washed to an unparalleled transparency by Glass-Glo, the people who also supply the lilac soap in our washroom.

''Your flight attendants' uniforms were designed by. . . .''

At this moment, Raoul Ramirez unbuckled his seat belt and strolled down the aisle. He was wearing his cap. At last we learned the identity of the masked advertiser. But if you think we're going to tell you without our own guaranteed contract, including residuals, you're sadly mistaken.

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