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Tune Deaf
Tim Francis-Wright

Ever since advertising agencies realized that rock music was truly in the mainstream, they have seized the opportunity to use that music in their television commercials. But it is clear from the current crop of commercials that a lot of rock musicians are having a great joke at the expense of the suits on Madison Avenue.

A number of current commercials use music that is precisely at odds with the products being sold. While irony might theoretically be the intent of the advertisers, it is more likely that advertisers are looking only for very familiar tunes, and are ignoring the more powerful words behind those tunes.

I don't begrudge the bands that have sold the rights to use their songs in commercials. The business of rock music is usually more lucrative to the executives at the record labels than to the musicians themselves, the ones with the actual talent. For every great band like The Doors that refuses to let corporations use its music at all, there are a huge number of bands who would welcome the opportunity to make a decent payday off of just one song.

Commercials often use certain songs because they are upbeat and popular, not because they exactly fit the products in question. For example, Mitsubishi used the song "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies to sell its Lancer sedan. In the commercial, actors sing along to several lines of the song, with laughter drowning out the words "I have a tendency for losing my shirt." That sort of juxtaposition, in which the company avoids using one part of a song that would deflect from the intended message, happens all of the time. (That is why Microsoft used the line "we could be heroes" from "Heroes" by David Bowie to help it sell its Windows operating system, when it could have used "We could be heroes/Just for one day.") But there are other, deeper, juxtapositions in some commercials that indicate a real crisis in the advertising industry, if not in capitalism.

Wrangler Jeans. Wrangler has, for the past few months, aired a commercial full of American flags and wholesome-looking models as the first line from "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival plays: "Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they're red, white and blue." So far, so good. But the commercial plays a few instrumental chords at the end, when CCR would have sung the next line: "And when the band plays 'Hail to the chief' they point the cannon right at you."

In 1969, John Fogerty and CCR protested the emptiness of patriotism for its own sake, and anyone paying attention at all to the lyrics knew it. Either the executives at VF, the parent company of Wrangler, were not paying attention, or they hoped that television viewers remember only the first line of the song.

If Wrangler could honestly wave the American flag, then its choice of song would just be unfortunate (except to Fantasy Records, which owns the rights to the song). But VF has been closing many of its American Wrangler plants in favor of plants in Mexico and Asia. At least I can take some pleasure that Wrangler's choice of music highlights the irony in its dubious waving of the flag.

Jaguar.Not long ago, Jaguar started promoting its "London Calling sales event" in commercials that featured the briefest of snippets from "London Calling" by The Clash. The obvious message of the campaing is that Jaguar, the English manufaturer is calling out to Americans to buy its cars. The song in question, however, is hardly an upbeat one: The Clash was an angry, leftist punk band, and this song is a decent exemplar for them. The chorus reports that:

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

Why anyone at Jaguar, long notorious for mechanical uncertainty, would want to use a song with "engines stop running" in the chorus is beyond me.

A deeper irony concerns the choice of this music by this particular company. Since February 1990, Jaguar has been a fully-owned subsidiary of Ford Motor Company, headquartered in Michigan. In the second verse of "London Calling," The Clash sing, "London calling to the imitation zone/Forget it, brother, an' go it alone." Jaguar is the just one of several British automobile companies (including Vauxhall, Rolls Royce, and Bentley) owned by foreign firms. Either Ford and Jaguar executives don't know the song, or they hope that viewers don't think much about the lyrics.

Diet Pepsi. In a current Diet Pepsi ad, a bus passenger in a button-down shirt listens to "Born to be Wild" by Steppenwolf and imagines himself in the movie Easy Rider, on a Harley next to Peter Fonda. The magicians at Pepsi's ad agency replaced Jack Nicholson's image on the existing movie footage with the bus-passenger actor.

I have never considered Jack Nicholson to be as great an actor as his reputation would have me believe, although he really was great in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I can, however, say with complete and utter certainty that he has a great sense of propriety and taste in eschewing an appearance in this ad. For no one who saw the movie would want to ride along with Peter Fonda. Suffice it to say that the last scene of the film is not the sort of upbeat scene that plays well in soda commercials.

Who knew the subversive subtext that advertisers were placing in their commercials? If the subtext is intentional, then the good folks at AdBusters are successfully subverting the nexus of American popular culture and American money. If it is unintentional, then consider for a moment the implications for the rest of society. If decision makers at advertising agencies are so self-destructive in their actions, could their equivalents in government and other businesses be doing similar things?

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