Part 2 in a series of occasional articles.
In the music video for Lady Gaga’s hit single “Bad Romance,” the pop diva vamps across several nightmarish tableaux wearing a variety of barely there lingerie get-ups. The flashy clip caused a sensation when it debuted in November and has racked up 85 million views on YouTube. ¶ But perhaps its most striking aspect is the unabashed product placement -- conspicuous visual shout-outs to Nemiroff vodka, Nintendo Wii, Burberry and other brands. ¶ Back in the proverbial day -- say, the Woodstock era, punk rock’s ‘70s heyday, the slacker-era ‘90s -- a song was a song and a jingle was a jingle and rarely the twain did meet. But now, with CD sales in free fall and opportunities for radio or television airplay increasingly rare, the rules governing the interplay between pop music and advertising are being rewritten.
It’s no longer possible to “sell out” -- at least, not within a certain time-cherished understanding of the term. Rockers, rappers and up-and-coming pop titans of all stripes are licensing music and image as an integral part of brand-building, which largely has usurped selling music and concert tickets as many musicians’ professional end goal.
Consider Chris Brown’s smash hit “Forever,” which cracked the Top 10 in seven countries in 2008 (before his career-derailing assault on Rihanna) and went double platinum. At the start of the song’s video, Brown is shown sliding a piece of gum into his mouth before heading out for a night on the town. On “Forever’s” chorus, he croons: “ ‘Cause we only got one night / Double your pleasure, double your fun.” Turns out the song was commissioned by Wrigley to promote -- you guessed it -- Doublemint gum. Three months after releasing the single, the chewing gum conglomerate aired its “reveal": a TV commercial version of “Forever” featuring Brown singing about gum and dancing with a pack of Doublemint.
The spot generated outcry among music purists, but marketers greeted the spots with awe. “When the reveal happened, some people got upset,” recalled Steve Stoute, founder of the firm Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging. “But the number of spins went up and Doublemint went up in awareness.”
Stoute, who was behind “Forever,” also is responsible for Justin Timberlake’s “I’m Lovin’ It” spots for McDonald’s as well as Beyoncé's endorsement deal for Tommy Hilfiger’s True Star perfume and the career game plan to treat Lady Gaga “like a brand” in her own right.
“Using entertainment assets to introduce products is a platform that needed to get exploited,” said Stoute, a former executive vice president of Interscope Records. “The lines needed to be blurred. When done correctly, there’s consumer acceptance.”
Stoute said his marketing company gets several calls a week from “major artists” in pursuit of their own “Forever.” It’s not selling out, he argues, if there’s an authentic relationship between the music and the product being hawked. “Marketing isn’t successful if the consumer feels he or she is being sold something,” Stoute said.
Personal favorite products
Mariah Carey’s most recent CD, “Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel,” was accompanied by a 34-page mini-magazine bearing the R&B diva’s image and emblazoned with an Elle magazine logo. It’s a co-production between Carey’s label Island Def Jam Music Group and Elle that features such brands as Angel Champagne, Elizabeth Arden and the Bahamas Board of Tourism intermingled with lighter-than-air Mariah-based editorial featurettes: “VIP access to her sexy love life,” “Fantasy: the five-time Grammy winner goes behind the scenes of her new drama.”
Carey pointed out she is personally or commercially invested in everything advertised.
“Angel Champagne, I guess I’m part owner. The Bahamas, we have a house down there,” Carey explained, between bites of caviar at the Polo Lounge. “It all has to do with things that are organic to me. And honestly? I’m a big kid. I thought it would be cute.”
Island Def Jam is exploring similar branded CD booklet deals for artists including Kanye West, Rihanna and Bon Jovi.
It all makes the Who’s rollicking 1967 concept album “The Who Sell Out” -- which featured faux commercials and cover art depicting band members shilling for deodorant and baked beans -- appear prescient. (In further irony, the Who’s epochal 1965 single “My Generation” is currently featured in a commercial for Flo TV.)
Scott Lipps, owner and founder of the New York modeling agency One Management, recalls a time not long ago when indie rock acts would sooner pack in their skinny jeans than appear in fashion ads. But now, Lipps has augmented the success of his agency (which represents such A-list glamazons as Bar Refaeli and Claudia Schiffer) with its offshoot One (M), dedicated to help place rock and pop stars in precisely such commercial environments. Among them: Alison Mosshart of the Kills and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, who were featured in ads for the fashion line J. Lindeberg, and the New York pop-rock band the Virgins, who were photographed for a Tommy Hilfiger campaign.
“People’s views on endorsements, doing magazine stuff -- any way to reach fans -- it’s all changed. It’s not taboo anymore,” Lipps said.
Lipps, formerly drummer for ‘80s rock group Black Cherry, remains attentive to the alliance of brand and band. “I’m never going to ask a very cool band to do business with a brand that they would never associate with,” said Lipps. “It’s about finding that right fit.”
After the rock quartet OK Go broke into mainstream consciousness with the homemade video for its 2006 single “Here It Goes Again” (featuring the band members performing a synchronized routine on exercise treadmills), they were bombarded with offers to re-create the sequence for TV commercials. The group developed what frontman Damian Kulash calls OK Go’s “hell-no criterion": “If it’s a product we feel is demeaning or that cannibalizes the meaning or artistry of our song,” he explained.
Still, the band has remained receptive to overtures from corporate America. Last year, the musicians appeared in print ads and billboards for Banana Republic -- its spring fashion line campaign that also included such artists as Liz Phair, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and Sara Bareilles -- attired in natty suits, playing their instruments. “The recording industry has so entirely bottomed out, advertising is one of the only distribution methods that still works,” Kulash said after returning from Japan, where he did a photo shoot for the fashion brand Uniqlo. “The music side has a deep ambivalence. It’s a pretty major paradigm shift that requires a rethinking of how we see what we do.”
He added: “I wish we never had to get in bed with that stuff. It doesn’t feel particularly good to wear the marketing hat. But our record label isn’t paying to put up billboards across the country.”
It’s become fashionable
Fashion designer John Varvatos faced a similar reluctance when he approached Ryan Adams about appearing in print ads and billboards for his streetwise clothing line in 2005. But after convincing the alt-country singer-songwriter that there would be “nothing fakey about him appearing in the clothes,” Varvatos went on to land Iggy Pop, members of Velvet Revolver and Cheap Trick, Perry Ferrell of Jane’s Addiction and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry for subsequent ads.
Varvatos said attitudes toward commodifying stardom have changed.
“I was besieged by people wanting to hook up with us,” Varvatos said. “There are a lot of people coming after us now. It’s almost the opposite problem now. We have to filter out.”
The designer was quick to dispel the notion, however, that the performers in his ads were selling out their images in return for some hefty payday. “We don’t pay the artists much of anything,” Varvatos added. “They’ve got to really want to do this.”
Katie Vogel certainly has no regrets over her decision to star in Sprite’s online series “Green Eyed World,” a digital marketing push that aired last year. The series used YouTube clips, social networking interfaces and the promotion of soda to help the London native launch her career; she brandishes a Sprite-green guitar in the clips and at times people around her are seen quenching their thirst with a certain lemon-lime-flavored refreshment. Asked if she was concerned that the association with the brand might limit her career prospects, Vogel, who now goes by the professional moniker Katie V., insisted there were no downsides.
“My music, it’s being heard,” Vogel said. “Even if one person says, ‘She’s the Sprite singer,’ they’ve heard my music. So I’m happy either way.”