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Michael Jackson : An Eccentric Superstar Makes Marketing a Tricky Proposition

October 11, 1987|BRIDGET BYRNE | Bridget Byrne is a Los Angeles-based entertainment writer and television producer.

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
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.

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