The use of popular music in commercials may have hit a new
low last weekend during the World Series. John Mellencamp’s
performance before Game 2 of his new song “Our Country” was
mind-numbing corporate bombardment at its worst.
Famous musicians have been shilling for corporations for as
long as both existed together. I’ve got mid-’60s pitches by
the Who, Cream, the Moody Blues, Jefferson Airplane, and Marvin
Gaye. This sort of thing all but disappeared, though, during
the Vietnam-era polarization. Whether Madison Avenue didn’t
want rock or vice-versa, anything that smelled even mildly
of rebellion or danger wasn’t used to sell much of anything
through the 1970s.
In the 1980s, the use of rock songs in commercials became
a flashpoint issue. Rock songs again began popping up in commercials
as Madison Avenue realized that baby-boomers, raised on rock
music, were the money demo. The ads were met by calls of “sell-out,”
perhaps a vestige of hippiedom, a cry against consorting with
the Man. Neil Young, bless him, released “This Song’s For
You,” complete with an over-the-top video, eviscerating the
literal commercialization of rock songs and those artists
who allowed it.
How things have changed since then. Today, the use of popular
songs, rock, hip-hop, whatever, is standard protocol; for
many musicians it’s the golden ring, the big score. With record
deals rarely paying much, and touring an iffy proposition
at best, the cash on the barrelhead that ads represent for
musicians often pays the mortgage. Ad money can go easily
into six-figures for a national campaign, is split 50-50 between
the musician and the record company, and an equal amount is
typically split between the publisher and the songwriter.
Iggy Pop’s made a fortune off of “Lust for Life.” And anything
that makes the Igster rich is fine with me.
And now, with ever-tightening radio disappearing as relevant
to promoting most music, ads are actually becoming a force
in breaking new music. Sting’s 2000 album Brand New Day
was dead in the water until his manager offered Jaguar a song
for free for a television ad campaign, on the condition that
Sting appear in the ads. The ads ran, and Brand New Day
went multi-platinum. U2 launched How to Dismantle an Atomic
Bomb with TV ads for iPods. Dylan just did the same thing
with Modern Times.
But Mellencamp’s thing is different. For the past week or
two, his song has become ubiquitous as a jingle for General
Motors television commercials, pitching the new Silverado—
Chevy’s big-ass, gas-guzzling pickup; the sort of truck bought
by tiny-weenus-compensating white guys who never haul anything
that would scratch their bedliner, but think a big truck will
make them appear virile, and can’t afford a Hummer. These
are guys who would never even consider buying a truck with
a foreign label, even though the better-made Toyota/Nissan/Honda
trucks are actually made in the U.S. by better-cared-for American
And so we have GM using Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” from an
album that won’t be released until next year (iTunes is selling
several versions of the song, and it has, of course, been
released to radio). The ads feature a sickeningly banal pastiche
of faux-patriotism, alluding to small-town America, the ’60s,
Chevy trucks, 9/11, Katrina, interstate highway signs, Nixon,
Chevy trucks, amber waves of grain, Rosa Parks, John Mellencamp,
a sad little boy in a cowboy hat, and Chevy trucks. It winds
up with one of those ad-agency manly voices saying “This is
our country. This is our truck,” as a shot of a big shiny
Silverado, shot at an angle to make it look as big and imposing
as possible, hits the screen. The ad has been running all
month, primarily during football and baseball games. It’s
been running a lot.
If that’s not bad enough, Mellencamp shows up Sunday night
at Comerica Stadium in Detroit, which features a Silverado
propped up at a rakish angle over an outfield fence and has
General Motors branding all over the place. I’d already seen
the ad at least 10 times, while watching football Sunday afternoon.
Mellencamp and a bunch of Nashville cats perform the song
as part of the “pre-game festivities.” While he’s playing,
video was inserted of a tractor in a field, the American flag,
the Washington Monument, etc. Just like the commercial, except
no Silverados—but that would have been crass, right?
The ad ran throughout the game. Several times during the game,
the camera would rest lovingly on the Silverado in the outfield.
I pray, before the series is over, that Albert Pujois puts
one through the windshield.