Michael Jackson : An Eccentric Superstar Makes Marketing a Tricky Proposition

<i> Bridget Byrne is a Los Angeles-based entertainment writer and television producer. </i>

THERE IS A THEORY ABOUT THE extinction of the Mayan Indians that should be of interest to Michael Jackson. The legend goes that they became so self-satisfied that they lapsed into staring in admiration at the symbol of the waterlily, which they had painted on the walls of their buildings. In the meantime, they neglected to tend the real waterlilies that fed the fish that fed their economy. In the past few years, Jackson has been chiseling, cleaving and remolding his face, forming a visage that has become both the symbol and the reality of his career as a music superstar. It’s as if he wants to make himself into one of those idealized pieces of graphic art on the side of every corporate high-rise that beam out a message of power and profits. A modern waterlily, a logo.

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Jackson is said to see not just the latest incarnation of his face when he looks in the bathroom mirror but also, written on a piece of paper taped to the mirror, the words “100 Million.” Apparently Jackson’s hope is that with his new album, “Bad,” he will best not only the competition but also himself--his last album “Thriller,” released five years ago, sold 38.5 million copies to become the best-selling album of all time. “Man in the Mirror,” in fact, is the name of one of the songs on “Bad,” which was released by Epic Records on Aug. 31. “Man in the Mirror” is also the album cut most music critics have selected to praise. A line from the song is printed among the many acknowledgments on the album’s liner notes: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 08, 1987 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 8, 1987 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 5 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In “Michael Jackson,” by Bridget Byrne (Oct. 11), Hobson’s Fine Blended Ice Cream of Santa Barbara was misidentified. --The Editors

Since he first came to public attention as the cute little lead singer of the Jackson Five in the late ‘60s, any change Jackson has made in the way he looks, the way he sings, the way he thinks, has taken place under the spotlight. And he has been of intense interest not only to his fans and the media, but to his record company and the sponsors who stand to benefit from his success.

Now, with the hoopla surrounding the release of “Bad” and the recent media emphasis on the eccentric aspects of the 29-year-old star’s behavior and appearance, those who hope to make money off Jackson are facing the pressure of marketing someone who is perceived as a little bizarre.


“ ‘What’s that guy done to his face!’ That’s the overriding comment I’m hearing,” says one longtime music industry executive in describing the feedback he’s received from others in the business. What he’s heard has strengthened his sense that stories of Jackson’s oddball actions--the extensive plastic surgery, the habit of sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, the attempt to buy the bones of the “Elephant Man,” the constant presence at his side of a chimpanzee named Bubbles--would dampen enthusiasm for an album he believes has too few stellar cuts to begin with. (Though the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard magazine pop chart, it has received generally lukewarm reviews.)

Meanwhile, whatever their doubts, Jackson’s corporate backers are committed to the use of his image to encourage the consumption of more soft drinks, the dialing of more phones, the watching of more television, the cuddling of more toys, the wearing of more buckles, the eating of more ice cream and the acquisition of such fan-club trinkets as buttons, calendars and key chains.

Pepsi and the Japanese Connection

SO FAR, THE JACKSON HARD SELL has been strongest in Japan, where the press has dubbed him “Typhoon” Jackson. His solo tour in that country, which began Sept. 12, is underwritten by Pepsi-Cola and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone.


Pepsi has a more-than-$50-million investment in Jackson, which includes his appearance in an as-yet-unreleased series of “episodic” commercials. The company views his presence as a chance to dent the supremacy in Japan of No. 1 rival Coca-Cola. Jay Coleman, president and founder of Rockbill Inc., the marketing consulting firm that negotiated Jackson’s new Pepsi deal, says the star was signed for a second round of commercials because he suits the corporation’s “new generation” image, which is more “avant-garde and leading edge” and which targets a more youthful, less traditional consumer than Coke. Coleman concedes that the months-long delay in the release of Jackson’s album and the media emphasis on the star’s eccentricities might have made Pepsi somewhat uneasy. However, Coleman speculates that the sellout of the concerts and the favorable press coverage in Japan have quieted any doubts Pepsi might have had.

Alan Levine, president of the international division of Hudson’s Ice Cream, was also pleased with Jackson’s reception in Japan. Hudson’s, a Santa Barbara-based company, is the top ice-cream retailer in Japan after only two years of business there. Looking toward expanding beyond its 22 stores, it arranged a tie-in with Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, which accompanied him to Japan. The chimp is represented in the stores by a replica from a new line of stuffed animals called “Michael’s Pets.” The purchase of this plush toy at a Hudson’s store comes with a free ice cream. “We view Jackson’s concert audience as the same type of people who eat our ice cream,” says Levine.

The Nippon Television Network has just negotiated an exclusive deal with Jackson for a two-hour, prime-time special documenting his tour, to be televised Oct. 31. The deal was arranged through 24-year-old Jimmy Osmond, formerly of the Osmond Brothers and now a concert promoter, through his friendships with Jackson and with Soaya Shirai, special-projects producer for NTV. NTV regards the deal as its greatest coup since it televised a Beatles concert in 1966. Besides more visibility for Pepsi, the program will also showcase the involvement of tour co-sponsor Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, whose current promotional gimmick is a phone credit card with Jackson’s picture on it.

Jackson’s photograph can also be seen on the picture record that comes with each of “Michael’s Pets.” These toys, which sell for about $25, are stuffed representations of animals in Jackson’s private menagerie, and they also share characteristics of the singer’s friends and associates. Besides Bubbles, the pets include Cool Bear, the stand-in for Jackson, wearing dark glasses and a down-brimmed hat; Uncle Tookie, a frog that resembles Jackson’s bull-necked manager, Frank Dileo; a guard dog named Bill; a llama named Louie; Muscles the snake, who sports a bow-tie, and Jabbar, a giraffe who wears athletic gear and is named for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Bob Michaelson, the affable independent manufacturer behind the creation of these toys, says, “Kids love them, and we know that teen-age girls and young women love to cuddle up with plush toys.” He insists that none of Jackson’s friends and associates have taken offense at the stuffed-toy depiction of their characteristics. “There’s great competition among ( Jackson’s friends) to see who’s going to sell the most,” Michaelson insists, expressing the Guinness Book of Records mentality that marks most of those who surround Jackson.

Michaelson concedes that he would have liked to have brought out the stuffed-animals line last Christmas but the delay in the completion of the “Bad” album made that impossible. However, he is confident the wait will be worth it.

Some companies that didn’t wait for the album’s release found themselves in trouble. Max Factor quickly discovered that nobody seemed to want to smell like Jackson, and the perfume “Magic Beat” evaporated when it was introduced a year ago. The first time around, a Jackson clothing line didn’t sell either. “We were successful with the retailer, but not with the consumer,” says Warren Hirsh, whose firm, Current Trends, handles much of the licensing of Jackson’s name. But Hirsh, whose company has licensed products for Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt, is trying again now that “Bad” is out. The hope is that department stores will still go for “street tough” jackets and pants, like those Jackson wears on the “Bad” album cover, and T-shirts bearing Jackson’s own designs.



THE JAPANESE MEDIA SEEM much more willing to accept the total Jackson rather than to pick away at his eccentricities. “People in Japan tend to look inside a person, and they see that, ‘So what if he appears a little weird, he’s a cool guy inside,’ ” says Jimmy Osmond, who has lived in Japan and has known Jackson since they were children and the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers were friendly rivals. But in America and Europe, the press is not so polite, and these days it isn’t getting much access to Jackson. With Jackson, marketing takes precedence over cooperation when it comes to publicity.

Press agent Lee Solters, long experienced in handling such media duckers as Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, is cooperative about giving out factual information about Jackson, but is adamant that his client will give no interviews.

In 1983 Jackson did discuss his four hit singles from the album “Off The Wall” with writer Gerri Hirshey for Rolling Stone, telling her how he cried in disappointment when he won only one Grammy. But this year even Rolling Stone, the granddaddy of pop music publications, couldn’t get an interview. David Handelman, who wrote the recent cover story with Michael Goldberg, says it is a struggle to come up with anything new when a subject won’t talk. Frustrated though he may have been, however, Handelman understands Jackson’s tactics, comparing them to those once used by silent-screen star Pola Negri. On her first trip to America, Negri was asked by her press agent to come out of her cabin because reporters were dying to talk to her. She announced that she’d get more press by staying inside. And she did.

People magazine also had Jackson on its cover at the time of the album’s release, with the headline, “Is this guy weird or what?” Cutler Durkee, who wrote the story, says he senses that the public and press perception of Jackson has shifted from the notion of “ ‘Here’s a really interesting guy’ to ‘Here’s a guy I don’t understand anymore.’ ” But, continues Durkee, that’s precisely why people will keep writing about him.

And even in the few moments when Jackson has talked to the press, he has revealed little. For instance, in 1983, at the Los Angeles opening of the musical “Dreamgirls,” “Entertainment Tonight” reporter Catherine Mann waylaid Jackson at the post-show party. When Mann asked Jackson what he thought of the show, he replied: “It was the most incredible play I’ve ever seen. It’s brilliant. Everybody should see it.”

Asked how close it was to the true story of the Supremes, he said, “Boy, I’d hate to comment on that ‘cause Diana Ross is a very dear friend of mine. So I better not say anything.”

Asked what he might tell Ross about the show, he said, “Actually she told me to see it for her. She did .”

“Entertainment Tonight” reporters have attended several Jackson press conferences since but they’ve never heard him be even that spontaneous again. The syndicated entertainment show had planned to send anchor Mary Hart to Japan to cover the opening of Jackson’s tour but she decided not to go when it became clear she would have no access to the star.


Rick Dees of KIIS-FM, Los Angeles’ top-rated disc jockey, has refused to play any songs from “Bad” on his show until Jackson gives him an interview.

Ebony magazine featured Jackson on its September cover. The story, written by Robert E. Johnson, also contains little that is new, though Johnson says he’s had interviews with Jackson since the singer was “a chubby-cheeked kid.” Johnson maintains that Jackson avoids interviews because he doesn’t think he is accurately depicted in the press. Johnson says he and Jackson once shared a laugh about how other reporters might ask for God’s phone number, so they could check on Jackson’s claim that God writes the songs through him.

Jackson’s unwillingness to talk apparently is delaying his authorized biography, “Moonwalk,” due from Doubleday in the spring, because he thinks it contains too many of his own quotes.

Manager Frank Dileo often speaks for Jackson. But even he did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story. His office referred the call to Glen Brunman, director of artist relations at Epic, despite being told that Brunman had already refused to discuss the marketing strategy for the album.


MANY PEOPLE WHO WORK WITH Jackson are contractually obligated not to talk about him--or at least not in specific terms. Still, some sense of the private man does leak out.

Discussing the possibility that “Michael’s Pets” might be featured in an animated film, Bob Michaelson said it was unlikely Jackson would appear in such a film. “I think Michael is too macho--you might argue with me on that but I think he’s too macho, too cool to be seen with a bunch of cartoon animals.”

Macho is not a word that springs immediately to mind in describing Jackson, but inevitably, in the Gary Hart era, speculation on celebrity sex lives is considered standard dinner party conversation. And there is much speculation about Jackson.

“I haven’t been around Michael much since he was 19,” says Bobby Colomby, music reporter on CBS’ “Morning Program,” “but I know that then he was very upset at the idea that any kids might perceive him as gay. He’s very graceful, and he has this high-pitched voice, and so inevitably there are people who think he might be gay. I saw no indication of it. So anyway, if that question came up I would say ‘No.’ ”

Colomby, former drummer for the group Blood, Sweat and Tears, was co-executive producer of the 1978 Jacksons’ album “Destiny,” the most successful LP in the Jacksons’ catalogue, with sales of well over 1 million. Colomby finds it perfectly understandable that Jackson should be perceived as different.

“Hey, he’s like any kid next door that became a lead singer when he was 5 . . . anyone who has been treated as a meal ticket all his life . . . anyone who is by nature an entertainer. What may seem fantasy to us isn’t fantasy to Michael. If he wants to have lunch with Sophia Loren or Elizabeth Taylor, it’s no problem. And because he’s living that fantasy, it’s no longer fantastic,” Colomby says. “So is it fair to condemn him if he then tries to find some other fantasy which isn’t everyone’s normal idea of a fantasy? If he needs the ‘Elephant Man’s’ bones or just wants to have his own suite at Disneyland or any of those other things we are told he’s after, then fabulous. Why not?

“He’s spent the last five years living out his dreams and he’s surrounded by people who say, ‘Michael, great idea! Let’s roll with it!’ When you’ve already been perceived as God on vinyl, God on tape and now God on CD, isn’t it always going to be difficult to top yourself? But who knows? He might, because I think he’s unbelievably talented. He has the smarts. And anyway, what constitutes a career mistake after you’ve sold almost 40 million copies? Probably nothing. I think he’s gone beyond the point when anything is really going to hurt him, and in some ways those ‘Elephant Man’ stories and the other oddities add to his mystique. And anyway who’s to say what’s weird?”

Colomby uses many of the same words other acquaintances of Jackson’s use to describe the singer: “Charming, funny, fair, impeccably honest, unbelievably talented, and yes, magic.” Jackson is often described as possessing a changeling quality, as though he has dropped in from another planet. But when it comes to business, he’s described variously as “very in control,” “determined to get what he wants,” “not at all strange.”

In one of his biggest business deals, Jackson bought the ATV Music publishing company in 1985 for nearly $50 million. Later, he was criticized when one of ATV’s properties, the Beatles’ “Revolution,” was used in a Nike commercial.

“Hey,” reasons Colomby, “nothing is sacred. Songs are songs, you know. If they help sell things like Nike, fine. Lots of people probably think running shoes are more sacred than the Beatles.”


IN THE JACKSON MARKETING scheme, the strange aspects of the “Bad” album and video have caused some concern.

The original album-cover photograph was of Jackson with lace over his face. But music industry sources say that Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records Group, Epic’s parent company, wasn’t buying that image, so it was substituted with the mixed message of a doe-eyed innocent in a subway mugger’s suit.

The 16-minute video of the album’s title song is a morality play that casts Jackson as a prep-school student who returns to his ghetto neighborhood, only to be taunted by his street-tough friends. In the end he wins them over to his point of view: That kids should stand up to peer pressure that can lead to drugs and violence.

“The use of language to overturn established values is a very positive statement,” says Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of “A Soldier’s Play,” who once met Jackson at a barbecue. Fuller theorizes: “It seems that the way Michael is using it (the word bad ) as in ‘wonderful,’ as in ‘great’ and also as in ‘tough,’ ‘very brave,’ ‘courageous,’ ‘gallant,’ is very positive.”

Fuller says he found Jackson to be “very polite--a very nice young man.” With the release of “Bad,” Fuller feels that Jackson “appears to be looking for another kind of image--tougher, more of the streets. Whether he can achieve that or not is another matter, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with the suggestion contained in the video’s story that there’s an alternative for kids to robbery in the subways.”

But others see the video differently.

“I think his video is offensive to all black people,” exclaims Eleanor Williams, promotions director for KJLH radio in Los Angeles. The station is owned by Stevie Wonder, who sings the duet “Just Good Friends” with Jackson on the album. “It contained all the stereotypical negative images of blacks--the drug dealing, the graffiti writing. He’s too weird with those ‘Elephant Man’ bones. Where are his values?”

KJLH music director Licia Torres has found response to the album to be positive, but she too was put off by the video. “The way he kept grabbing himself. That’s strange,” she says. “He was such a nice little kid.”

The $2-million video debuted on national television on the day of the album’s release as part of a half-hour CBS special. “Michael Jackson . . . The Magic Returns” also included a compilation of clips from his career. The program easily beat out its competition, the situation comedy “ALF” on NBC and the first half of ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” But if letters to local newspapers are any indication, the special disturbed some members of the public, and it was lambasted by the critics.

Reviewers groused that the video, by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, is murky, lacking anything that might be considered magical despite the obvious “Wizard of Oz” transition from black and white to over-the-rainbow color--an overused idea, particularly from a star who appeared as the scarecrow in the 1978 musical version, “The Wiz,” and from a director who, as far back as his 1972 “Boxcar Bertha,” has used references to the classic MGM film. And for those who love Jackson’s dancing, the choreography seemed to be just the same old moves.

In 1983, those moves were fresh, and visuals and music jelled to perfection in the videos of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” from “Thriller.” Then Jackson went on to “moonwalk” to stardom in his show-stopping appearance on Motown Records’ 25th-anniversary TV special. For Jackson to outsell “Thriller” would challenge not only his own reserves of talent but also the skill of all the marketers whirling around him. Yet Jackson himself seems to be in the forefront of those applying the pressure. After all, he’s the one with “100 Million” taped to his mirror.

To that end, Jackson opened his Encino estate in July to host a party for the nation’s top record retailers. Their wooing by Epic / CBS resulted in part in an advance order of 2.5 million copies of “Bad,” considered to be the largest pre-order in CBS history. Three weeks after its release, the album remained at No. 1 on sales charts in the United States and had hit No. 1 in Japan and much of Europe. Epic was estimating that the album would sell 6 million copies by Oct. 1.

Before the album’s release, Jackson also paid a courtesy call to Thomas Noonan, associate publisher and director of charts for Billboard, the music trade paper. Noonan says the critics have been too hard on Jackson. He has faith in the album’s selling power and says he believes that it will be particularly hot on compact disc.

“I’m not a reviewer,” he says, “but I love the album. That first single, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,’ wasn’t the strongest cut, and it went to No. 2 on both the Hot 100 chart and the Hot Black Singles chart. I’m not sure it would be possible to make a better ‘Thriller’ but I think there are some very unique songs on this album.”

“The music speaks louder than everything else,” Noonan insists. “The jury is out there. They have to pay for it, and it’s their vote that counts. The critics get too esoteric, and it’s not fair to keep comparing it to ‘Thriller.’ Did Michelangelo and Picasso trace over their best work?”

Out in the record stores on the morning of the album’s release, the promotional posters were up, and the reporters and cameramen were crowding in. “There have been more camera crews than people,” joked Todd Meehan, sales clerk at Tower Records, where Jackson cutouts dance on the roof overlooking Sunset Boulevard.

“He’s been in here a few times,” Meehan says of Jackson. “He won’t look you straight in the eye. He’s a shy guy, I guess, but he will sign autographs, which is more than Prince does. If people knew how Prince treated his fans, he wouldn’t be so popular. Michael used to sign with whatever date it was. Now he signs 1998. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it’s when he thinks the world is going to end or something.”

Bill Clark, a customer at Tower, said he’d come in to buy the album because he’d seen Jackson in the film “Captain Eo” at Disneyland the previous day. “I think people are currently too quick to shoot him down. I like his energy,” says Clark, an employee of an entertainment law firm, who once met Jackson. “He whispers a lot, but I guess we all have our eccentricities.”

After the Labor Day weekend, when the album had been in release for a week, Bob Roth of the Disneyland public relations department said attendance at “Captain Eo” didn’t seem to be influenced by the release of “Bad.” The attraction, he explained, usually pulls in more than 90% capacity anyway. The week of the album’s launch, “Captain Eo” had entertained 2,100 people an hour, from 9 a.m. to midnight each day.

The eventual release of the “Smooth Criminal” video, which shows Jackson out of the subway, back into the brighter pastures of special effects, animals and kids, may help to remind television viewers of his mainstream magic. The video is reported to have cost four times as much as Scorsese’s “Bad.” Colin Chilvers, British-born director of “Smooth Criminal,” says, “I started work February last year. . . . No, I mean this year.” He laughs at his mistake. “I expected it to be difficult, and it was. Michael’s a perfectionist, and when you are trying to break new ground and working with special effects as we were, it’s inevitable that there is frustration. The main difficulty is that Michael is so busy. There is always something dragging him from one meeting to another. I don’t know how he handles it all as well as he does. So, for anyone working with Michael, the greatest frustration is always going to be getting enough access to him.”

Chilvers agrees with those who found the “Bad” video “a little down.” “Ours is fun. It has more to do with the fun, the magic people felt Michael used to generate. People keep talking about Michael wanting to change his image but I don’t think that’s really true. What we have tried to do is to let people see more of the real Michael, to reveal some interesting insights.”


ONE FIELD THATJACKSON HASN’Tyet conquered is that of feature films--he hasn’t made one since “The Wiz.” A much-publicized plan to star in a film of “Peter Pan” for Steven Spielberg came to nothing, as did a script brought to him by Lynda Obst when she worked for David Geffen, who had a movie development deal with Jackson. Titled “Street Dandy,” it was by “Flashdance” writer Tom Hedley. Obst, who co-produced “Adventures in Babysitting,” found the script “wonderful” but says it was considered a little too fanciful for Jackson. She would like to see Jackson star in a project similar to “Back to the Future.” “His image has clearly taken a turn recently, and I think he really needs to play a hero with his feet on the ground--but that’s just my personal opinion.”

If Jackson isn’t yet a movie star, he certainly hangs out with those who are. He’s always been an out-and-out fan, quick to let it be known when he has any contact with anyone he considers a star. When asked why he was wearing dark glasses to the post-"Thriller” Grammys, at which he won eight awards, he answered, “Kate told me to wear them,” implying that his friend Katharine Hepburn gives him advice.

His eagerness to be photographed in the company of movie stars might shame the most pushy fan, and he has escorted women most men only dream about. He was with Sophia Loren at a recent Frank Sinatra concert, and he’s squired Elizabeth Taylor to such events as the opening of the Hollywood Park racing season and the appearance of Mikhail Baryshnikov with the American Ballet Theater in Los Angeles.

Jackson used to step out with Brooke Shields but Emmanuel Lewis, the young star of “Webster,” always seemed to be along for the ride--literally perched on Jackson’s shoulder, a position Bubbles the chimp now occupies.

Monica Stewart, who works with Emmanuel Lewis, says testily that Lewis won’t discuss his friendship with Jackson. “He’s tired of the issue, tired of the subject. He’s been asked about it too much. It drives him crazy. They’re just friends, and that is his own personal thing.”

When Jackson doesn’t want his photograph taken, he resorts to disguises. Anything will do, from a dime-store mask for a browse in an antique market, to a fat man’s disguise for a trip to a museum, to a drooping mustache when he was a Jehovah’s Witness and went proselytizing door-to-door while on the “Victory” tour around America. But, on the other hand, for a recluse, Jackson is photographed often. Observers say that he and Liz Taylor fought flirtatiously for the use of a hand mirror before inviting the paparazzi to take their picture dining at Le Dome after the ballet, somewhat to the surprise of Baryshnikov, who had joined them. As a photographer who has worked with Jackson says: “Michael’s a showman, a good showman. What he does is never spontaneous, it’s always calculated. Does that make it hype? It’s all designed to achieve a goal, which is not just to sell more albums than anyone else but to be unique.”

Danielle Finmark, a 12-year-old who attends Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a Southern California camp for children undergoing cancer treatment, doesn’t remember specific details of the conversation she had with Jackson when she visited his home in 1986. “It was just normal conversation,” she says. “He called the day before to ask what I’d like for lunch. We had spaghetti and pizza and garlic bread and salad, and he had that too.” She toured the house, which is described by another visitor as being in good taste despite its Louis XV style and the extravagances of its trophy room, screening room, private zoo, Disney memorabilia and much-publicized candy store. The latter feature was what most impressed Finmark, who watched the movie “Short Circuit” with Jackson and was introduced to his animals.

“I don’t like it when other kids say he’s weird and call him names or I read those stories about him,” the outspoken child says. “That’s his life and his choice, and he should be allowed to do with it as he wants.”

Jackson supported Camp Ronald McDonald by donating profits from the “Victory” tour. Tour money also benefited the United Negro College Fund and the T. J. Martell Foundation for Leukemia and Cancer Research. “Kids love him,” says Camp Good Times founder Pepper Edmiston. “Kids are weird, so they’re not troubled by any of those stories about him” she says, comparing Jackson’s “Elephant Man” fixation to kids’ interest in Garbage Pail Kids. The only request Jackson has made of the camp is that dormitories be named for himself and his mother, Katherine.

Tabloid newspapers recently have published stories claiming that Jackson’s mother, who lives with him, can no longer communicate with her most famous son. These stories speculate that this has occurred because Jehovah’s Witnesses shun those who quit the faith, as Jackson did earlier this year. Though Jackson’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, sources close to the family say there is no friction between the two.

And he’s certainly talking to other members of the family. Marlon Jackson’s wife, Carol, spoke about her brother-in-law as she and her three children watched Marlon tape a “Solid Gold” television program in which he sings and dances to a song from his first solo album, “Baby Tonight. “He’s just Uncle Michael to the kids,” Carol Jackson says.

Yet even within the Jackson family, business is business. Older than Michael and Randy but younger than Jermaine, Jackie and Tito, Marlon, 30, says that when it comes to competing with his siblings for a place on the charts, “they’re just the same competition as anyone else, Smokey (Robinson) or Prince or whomever. Family is one thing, business is another, and in business everyone is out for themselves. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish people could show more love for each other but that’s the way it is. This is the business I’m in, so I have to deal with that.”

During a break in the taping of the “Solid Gold” show, which is a nostalgic look back at 1968, he recalls with pleasure a less competitive time. The Jacksons won the amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem that year. Marlon expresses no resentment that Michael was picked to lead the group. “He was the littlest, and so he got the job. We lived by the majority rule. What was best for the group was best for everyone.”


IT’S THE MUSIC, EVERYONE INSISTS,that keeps the Michael Jackson marketing concept alive.

This was the case as far back as 1969-1970, when Michael was the 11-year-old lead singer for the Jackson Five and the group had four consecutive No. 1 singles--"I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” With the exuberant Michael fronting the group like a miniature James Brown, the Jackson brothers’ popularity cut across all races and all ages.

Pepsi and Jackson’s other sponsors seem to still be buying this notion of broad appeal. Ken Ross, a spokesman for Pepsi, says that the company will probably release the new Jackson commercials when his tour returns to America in the winter. Pepsi remains bullish on the star, he says, “because when you are selling soft drinks what you need is excitement, and we believe that nobody can generate excitement like Michael Jackson. We believe that lightning can strike twice. He’s a unique talent and has that true broad audience appeal that transcends all barriers--young and old, black and white, male and female.”

The corporate love for Jackson endures. It is a love that seems mutual. Perhaps that’s why Jackson looks the way he does--neither young nor old, neither black nor white, neither male nor female. He seeks perfection, to become the perfect marketing logo.