Madison Avenue Rock City

By brian longtin • Sep 9th, 2008 • Category: listening • Popularity: 14%

Two brands try their hand at pop music sponsorship, with differing results.

Sponsorship of art is not in itself a bad thing. Though in the eyes of some an artist has more street cred if he funds his work without the help of The Man, this argument breaks down quickly. After all, it takes time and equipment to make art. If not paid for by some benefactor, then the artist himself has to waste hours on lowly non-artistic things like burger-flipping in order to support his creative process. His only real choices are either to work directly for The Big Man and dedicate his time wholly to a craft with adequate sponsorship, or spend half his life working for some Smaller Man in order to spend the other half doing what he really loves. The difference between the two is really only a matter of degrees — of whether a distinct line is drawn, or not — as long as either Man doesn’t control or restrict the end result.

This has been the case throughout the ages. Medieval bards played for food and shelter. Renaissance painters had patrons. The classics of early television were all “brought to you by” someone, and radio and TV depend on ad minutes to this day through the indirect middlemen of the networks — a system of necessary evil that funds our entertainment. But as current technology has made it easier to cut out the sponsor and go straight to the tasty bits of enjoyment, today’s patrons are inventing new ways to get a better return on their involvement.

The deal-with-the-devil moment comes when companies have to make a choice between subversion or cooperation. They can work around their audience’s tendency to edit them out, or make an effort to overcome that tendency by earning their attention. The two approaches, and their opposing results, were both perfectly demonstrated this summer by two brands trying their hand at pop music sponsorship.

In the win column goes the project put together by Converse, called ‘Connectivity’, for their 100 year anniversary. To show how their iconic shoes have been embraced by all types of artists through the ages, they brought three diverse talents together to collaborate on an original song: Santogold, Julian Casablancas from The Strokes, and Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. The track is free to download from the Converse site, so the shoemakers can’t be accused of forcing fans to pay for their commercial. The song itself may not be groundbreaking, but it is a catchy, dance-worthy tune that combines a trio of interesting musicians who may never have teamed up otherwise. Most importantly, the corporate backing did not interfere with the work. Listening on your iPod or watching the video, it would be difficult to tell, if not for the logo at the end, that this idea originated from a team of sneaker marketers.

Whatever your opinion of the song itself, Converse did everything right that they could. They provided something of interest for free in exchange for a visit to their website. The concept had a relevant connection to their place in popular culture, but the execution wasn’t a shameless work of commercialization. There’s nothing to get mad about here; in fact music bloggers all over were re-posting the song and getting excited about the fact that three buzz-worthy artists had a chance to work together for the first time. In short, Converse respectfully asked for our attention and offered value in return. Everyone wins.

Contrast that with the artistically challenged team at Wrigley’s gum. Having no coolness of their own to draw from, they thought it would be easier to pay a marginally talented radio-friendly hit maker to create some for them.

[Chris] Brown is one of a trio of pop stars enlisted by ad agency Translation Advertising, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos., to update the images of three of Wrigley’s best-known brands.

First, Mr. Brown updated the jingle and recorded it with hip-hop producer Polow Da Don. Then, during the same Los Angeles recording sessions in February, paid for by Wrigley, Mr. Brown added new lyrics and made a 4½-minute rendition of the tune, titled “Forever.”

In April, Mr. Brown’s record label, Jive, released the song to radio stations and digital download services as a single. After the song became a hit, Jive added it to his 2007 album, “Exclusive,” and re-released the album in June. “Forever” reached No. 4 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart…

The campaign was conceived and executed by [Translation Chief Executive Steve] Stoute, a former senior executive at Interscope Records who counts rapper Jay-Z as a partner in his business. The idea was to connect the hit song and the jingle in listener’s minds. That way, Mr. Stoute says, “by the time the new jingle came out, it was already seeded properly within popular culture.”

When CEO’s of anything start throwing around phrases like ‘update the image’ and ’seeded properly within popular culture’, artistic integrity is obviously not a high priority. And surprise, surprise, people were pissed off. Upon finding out the details, the smirking powers that be at Gawker even called for a boycott — the catastrophic business effects of which can only be imagined. 

Now some people may not think this is a big deal, with the argument being that if it’s a good song, it doesn’t matter who paid for it. Again, setting aside whether you enjoy the song itself, there is definitely a major shade of difference in these two cases. Assuming Wrigley’s did what Converse did, and tried to offer something of value in exchange for your interest in their brand, it’s simply a case of doing everything wrong that Converse did right.

For starters, the single debuted as a standalone release. People paid for it through iTunes and in record stores around the country. It was being played on radio stations, even coming close to chart topping status, before anyone knew the connection. In the months preceding the matching commercial jingle, no one was aware that they were being ’seeded’ with its tune, and happily forking over cash for the privilege to boot. Even if the two had coincided, it would have rankled less — no one feels bad paying to download the latest ’song from the iPod commercials’. We expect the salesman to put on his song and dance, and we’ve all learned to put up with that in our lives. But if there’s one thing people like even less than being sold too, it’s being tricked.

Additionally, this was not a case of appropriation of a popular tune. The jingle came first, and was expanded into a full song for the express purpose of this trickery. It’s a clever idea: get the catchy tune from an ad stuck in your head before it’s even an ad. But the fact that it was done covertly not only rubs us the wrong way, it retroactively demeans a song people may have grown to like on its own merits. Wrigley’s won’t get credit for inspiring a great tune; they’ll get tagged as corporate shills. Chris Brown didn’t have a unique creative opportunity; he had a good hook someone else paid him to write, and a manager with an idea on how to make even more money off of it. Add to that a bunch of fans who lose faith in him and their Doublemint gum. Nobody wins.

To top it off, the commercial his jingle appears in is an equally derivative mix of iPod and Sprint ads already on TV, which underlines the whole problem. Everyone knows someone has to pay for the entertainment we all enjoy. We’ll fork over cash for CD’s and DVD’s, sit through some annoying commercial breaks, even put up with rampant product placement in our reality shows to a point, which is teetering dangerously close to the edge of acceptable. But when the patrons have too heavy a hand in the final art works — when they go Wrigley’s instead of Converse — we end up with a flavorless wad stuck to the bottom of our favorite old pair of Chucks. And everyone hates when that happens.

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brian longtin only has one of these songs stuck in his head right now, but will keep which one to himself.
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