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Rock for sale

Pop stars once shied from selling their songs, but today the rush is on, from both sides, to marry music and commerce.

July 22, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

THE images of dead rock stars entered public consciousness quietly at first, turning up two months ago in a British giveaway magazine, as part of an ad campaign for Dr. Martens boots. In heavily retouched photo montages, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, the Clash's Joe Strummer and snarling Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious are seen perched amid roiling clouds in heaven. Each wears a white angel's toga and a pair of "Docs," the English work boots synonymous with punk rock's smash-the-state ethos. In a corner of each ad, the Dr. Martens logo hovers above the word "Forever."

Despite being seen by fewer than 100,000 people in the campaign's print run, the ads created a furor online and have come to rank among the most reviled marketing efforts in advertising history.

"Tasteless!" ran a headline in, the website that broke the story. (The images were licensed for use in the UK through Corbis, the original photos' supplier, apparently without permission from the musicians' estates.) Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, lamented the "despicable use" of her husband's image. Fan outcry lighted up hundreds of blogs worldwide. And as a coda, executives at Dr. Martens apologized for the "offensive" ads and fired Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency responsible for them.

Oddly enough, the fracas now commonly referred to as "Heavensgate" may be most notable for its nostalgic value -- for reminding pop fans of a time when their idols would rather have been caught dead than appear in TV commercials, vogue moodily in print ads or shout out product placements in their songs. Nowadays, those practices have become an acceptable, if still not altogether palatable, part of the cultural scenery as advertisers increasingly look to pop music for sizzle and to some extent, vice versa.

At a moment in the musical continuum when Iggy Pop's ode to deviant hedonism, "Lust for Life" -- a song in which he repeatedly pledges against temptation: "No more beating my brain with liquor and drugs" -- plays in spots for Royal Caribbean Cruises, and bubblegum diva Fergie recently inked a reported $4-million deal to sing about Candie's teen apparel on her next album, the use of pop in ads no longer carries the sellout stigma it held for the Woodstock generation, or even in the '90s, when "Alternative" was a stand-alone musical category and indie music was still heard on commercial radio.

As has been reported, that's due in part to more artists reluctantly warming to the idea that licensing agreements are a necessary evil, generating revenue and creating "exposure" in an era of plummeting record sales and dwindling opportunities for commercial airplay -- even if that means losing some existing fans in the process.

Advertisers, for their part, are harnessing pop's powerful potential for cross-branded synergy more aggressively and variously than ever. One side effect: Commissions for original music for ads are down, and licensing music from established and emerging artists is through the roof, marketers say.

It's a mixed blessing that can introduce underground artists to a wider fan base (as a current Motorola phone spot has, creating a minor ring-tone hit out of glitch-hop artist Dabrye's "Hyped-Up Plus Tax"). But just as often, ad pop adulterates musical chestnuts (such as EMF's 1991 hit "Unbelievable," repurposed as the jingle "Crumbelievable" in the service of Kraft cheese) and can distort a song's original intent, as a 1995 Mercedes-Benz commercial did by using Janis Joplin's lampoon of consumer culture "Mercedes Benz" as a straight-ahead product endorsement.

According to Greg Lane, senior vice president of GSD&M, the Austin, Texas, ad agency that licensed Oasis' "All Around the World" for AT&T spotsrunning since 2005, ad pop is a mutually beneficial relationship. "It's a marriage of two brands. It's the client's brand, be it AT&T or iPod, as well as the brand of the band itself," Lane said.

"Part of the deal is, you're never going to make everyone happy. And there's no such thing as bad press. Even if fans are upset, it might not affect sales of what's being advertised -- it might increase sales."

Jay Babcock, editor and co-owner of the countercultural Arthur magazine, sees ad pop's ubiquity altogether differently, viewing it as the bellwether for a kind of cultural decay. "What kind of culture sets up a system where the only way to hear good music is through TV commercials for products you don't need?" Babcock said. "What little art is out there has to sneak in wherever it can, being stand-ins for jingles. It's the sign of an unhealthy culture. The culture is eating itself."

Profit-fueled change of heart

BACK in the '90s, when he was the lead singer of neo-psychedelia band Tripping Daisy, Tim DeLaughter had the luxury of snubbing requests to sell the group's music to marketers.

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