Bob Dylan, John Lydon, Beyoncé and Lee ‘Scratch’ Parry. The news is that the foursome has teamed up to form a Mumford & Sons-esque folk troupe and will tour… sorry, just a joke. But the joke’s on us – the music lover – as we turn our attention to the prickly subject of our favourite artists appearing in adverts. Each of the musical icons listed above has taken a fee to promote at least one product.
Dylan’s latest – he has got ‘form’, as we shall see – was an advert for car manufacturer Chrysler, broadcast to over 100 million viewers during Super Bowl XLVIII in 2015. Jaws hit the floor as the genius who once wrote “money doesn’t talk it swears” and “… it’s easy to see without looking too hard that not much is really sacred”, delivered the following ode to parochialism: “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. Because what Detroit created was a first and became an inspiration to the rest of the world…” He was talking about cars. He was talking about the famous ‘motown’. He was talking shite – written for him by New York-based advertising agency, GlobalHue (they also ‘look after’ Walmart and the US Navy). Let’s ignore the fact that Chrysler is now part of the Fiat group, rendering the line “…is there anything more American than America” a little out there at best.
What we’ll focus on is the integrity of the artist the day after the cheque clears. Is there any left? The late, great, fearless and unflinching Bill Hicks famously declared: “Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call. Every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore and end of story.” Is he right – and is ‘the bottom line’ now the only line artists are scared to cross? Opinions are divided – and the water gets murkier as each passing week brings another musician trying to please their paymasters instead of their creative urges. It’s not a new thing. Nor is it always about steering clear of the bread line: old school rock millionaires Ringo Starr, Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper have all done more than one commercial, as have punk rocker rich listers’ Iggy Pop and Jack White.
Hip hop and advertising have become intrinsically linked too, with Eminem (Chrysler), Jay Z (Samsung) and Chris Brown (erm, chewing gum) all getting into bed with corporate partners to either promote their own work or that of the sponsor. Of course, Run DMC famously invited Adidas executives to a show (in the aftermath of their My Adidas single), prompting the company to sign the rap trio to an alleged $1.6 million deal that included their own line of trainees’. You can trace the modern day noise and confusion back to this decision also: Run DMC never intended to cash in on the success of said song – nor was it written for that reason – but cash in they did, nevertheless.
What comes first, then, the advert or the art? And can they co-exist? Both Dylan (him again) and U2 appeared in Apple’s initial iPod campaigns, but their acolytes argued that in promoting product that focused on music and the availability, quality and marketing of it; this removed them from the political ‘corporate sell out’ debate. Does it? We do seem to find it easier to believe in the integrity of the sports man or woman who promotes products they use to engage in their art (e.g. Nike football boots), more than we do a singer, songwriter or actor. There are still exceptions, however, even in said grey area.
Bruce Springsteen – who famously turned down around $12 million for the rights to Born in the USA from Chrysler (them again) back in 1984 – has played the same Fender Telecaster (fact fans: we know it’s a hybrid) for what seems like forever. But he has never endorsed, advertised or promoted the fact. And we’re pretty sure the offers have been there. We’re talking similar figures also for Super Furry Animals (a long way from rich men we’re sure), who turned down Coca Cola’s money a while back too.
“I don’t believe in absolutes anymore, I’m quite prepared to admit I was wrong…” – so runs the opening line of 2010’s Postcards From A Young Man, by Manic Street Preachers. Is there something to this? The Manics’ Nicky Wire has long engaged in spirited debate about the roles artists can forge in society, once saying that he “… knew it was over when I saw Jack White, an indie icon, doing a Coca Cola advert. That just wouldn’t be allowed when we were starting out. In the early 90s you would have been crucified and it’d be career over.” Of course, this was before his group took £40,000 for an advert from Sainsbury’s during the recent Paralympics… though, it must be said, they gave it right back (this begs the question of why bother in the first place?). “We just looked at each other and went, ‘why are feeling guilty about it?’ Next time we’re asked to advertise something, does anyone give a shit any more if we say, ‘fuck it’ and do it?”
Do you? Fans of Duffy did. As did her management, who advised the Welsh singer not do a Coca Cola commercial back in 2009. Remember that? We’re sure you do… but we’ll wager that you don’t remember the name of her record that came out around the time of the campaign. Endlessly flopped like a wet jelly on a mattress and Duffy hasn’t been seen since (it sold 200,000 – as opposed to the 6.5 million copies of debut Rockferry). Was that all the fault of a backfiring corporate partnership? One ‘tie in’ that did work artistically for a performer – on the surface at least – was John Lydon and butter. The ex-Sex Pistol claims he bankrolled PIL‘s last album and tour (both relative successes) with the proceeds from his Country Life promo spots. Is that selling out – if the very thing you’re accused of selling out wouldn’t exist without the sell out? Perhaps he could have signed a small deal with a label and touring agent and be present at a lower level… but perhaps that’s a whole other debate.
We put the call out on Twitter for fans’ thoughts. This was a typical response: “If the commercial has any substance or value, and is of a good standard, I don’t mind it as much.” Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Les Paul, with Guinness and Coors respectively, being mentioned. So, is that the crux? It’s acceptable if the product is ‘cool’? If so, we’re wading through more muddy water, as who would like to define cool from one hash tag to the next?
It’s a cracking advert for a debate, though.
– Pic by John Johnson