The San Francisco powerhouse agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners takes as its corporate mantra "art serving capitalism." But I wonder if it shouldn't be the other way around?
I give you -- with a plate of chocolate chip cookies -- "Battle for Milkquarious," a 20-minute Web-only "rock opera" by GSP featuring the exploits of White Gold, the doofus-y guitar-strutter/pitchman for the California Milk Processor Board (the "Got Milk?" people).
We met White Gold in previous commercials. Once a bedraggled, dairy-averse slacker, White Gold has been transformed by the power of milk into, well, a refugee from an '80s hair band. Actually, with his perm-fried bleached mullet, biker mustache and white-and-gold spandex space outfit, White Gold looks like the love child of Ted Nugent and every member of the old rock outfit Foghat.
That will teach girls to stay off the bus.
GSP has produced five 30-second television spots to introduce audiences to "Battle of Milkquarious" that will run through December. White Gold himself is a social media butterfly, with more than 12,000 fans on his Facebook page, a Twitter account and five songs available on iTunes, one of which is titled "Is It Me, or Do You Love My Hair?"
The delirious and delightful "Battle" is a weird new breed of branded entertainment. In its effort to gather online eyeballs and appeal to a marketing-allergic population of young people, GSP has created work so oblique that it ceases to be commerce at all.
Nor is it marketing, exactly. After all, "milk," California or otherwise, isn't a brand but a generic product category. Does milk even need an advertising campaign? There is never enough of it around when a kid is in the house.
So if it's not advertising and it's not marketing, what is it? Musical theater with vitamin D? Even its creators aren't sure.
"The days when you could hit kids over the head with TV and radio are over," said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of GSP. That's especially true with a message about the goodness of milk, which has the reek of correctitude and healthy behavior that appalls kids. "We really want to create something that was a destination, that they would seek out," he said.
"Battle" is certainly must-click Web TV. The story begins high above tooth-white Calcium City, in "the luxurious love den of the most milktastic rock star in the super-universe, White Gold. . . ." (Getting the flavor here?)
Henchmen for the evil Nasterious kidnap the beautiful Strawberry Summers and steal all the milk in Milkquarious. White Gold must stop him. Along the way he picks up an ally in Jug Life, a muscle-bound black man (African Milkquarian?) who prefers chocolate milk.
Stylistically, "Battle" is somewhere between "Barbarella" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and with its Barry White love grooves and hair-band references, the film is a bathtub of Gen X nostalgia.
Nearing defeat, White Gold is rescued by Bovina, the legendary cow/unicorn/Pegasus of Curdvana. In the end, White Gold receives a double-neck glass guitar filled with milk that shoots laser beams. He defeats Nasterious, only to discover in the emotional coda that he is White Gold's long-lost son.
OK, Stephen Sondheim it's not. But it's got some terrific songs, a breathless goofiness and a mocking virality as catching as the common cold. After all, who could resist a song called "You're Almost as Beautiful as Me?"
"When there's not a mirror around, you're the hottest thing I see," croons White Gold.
But will it sell milk? Oh, right, milk!
In its effort to avoid looking like marketing, "Battle" manages to subvert its own client. Milk here is a mere McGuffin, a reason to spur the hero to action.
"Battle" has much more in common with last year's Web musical "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," an Emmy winner and iTunes hit starring Neil Patrick Harris, than anything remotely promoting dairy.
(In fact, "Battle for Milkquarious" provides the springboard for the milk processor board's "White Gold Milkdonkulous Giveaway," a $50,000 contest to help California high school music and drama programs replace funding lost in budget cuts. Schools compete by re-creating their favorite scenes from the rock opera and sending the videos in.)
Cultural theorists are going to have to find a word for this kind of work. When BMW commissioned the "Hire" series of short Internet films early in this decade, the product was dead center -- smoking hot BMWs doing sexy things on asphalt. That was branded entertainment we could all agree on. And we could all agree it was inferior to work driven by pure artistic intent.
But what about a clever short-form musical with a milky hero and creamy songs, in which milk is irrelevant? Is this a higher calling of commerce or a lower calling of art? Does this bring us to Andy Warhol territory, the land of branded art?
And, in work like this, perhaps it's the ad agency's clients who are getting the short end. Advertisers may wonder who will buy the cow when viewers can get the milk for free?