Copyright 2004 Linda Marcas - All Rights Reserved
Crank's Corner 8 July 2004
Gag Me With a Tune
I need a reality check, because my memory isn't as good as it used to
be. Thirty years ago, did television commercials all have their own music,
annoying and ear-wormishly catchy in its own right, or were they already
ripping off popular tunes that dated from the youth of their targeted potential
customers? Back then, I probably wouldn't have noticed if commercials
used 1940s' and '50s' hit songs, because I had no emotional investment in the
original music, but I'm certainly noticing that today's commercials are
shamelessly exploiting the music of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and the
implications bug me.
Perhaps it's just a side effect of getting older, as my Baby Boomer
generation drags its population pyramid demographic bulge up into middle
age, and the marketing experts expect that most of us will have money to
spend on their products. We were the young, the party animals, the counter-
culture rebels whose motto was "don't trust anyone over thirty!" as we railed
against the hypocritical and materialistic world of our parents. We had our
own values, our own culture; peace and love, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
Our music was political, even if a particular song was not, because the music
represented our hopes and desires for a "better" world than the one we lived
in. As our parents yelled, "turn that noise down!", our music stood for "us"
in the "us-against-them" world. Inevitably, though, our "us" generation
grew older, and now we're all way, way on the back side of thirty. We have
mortgages, we have credit cards.
Now that we're older, more settlled, and maybe wiser, having raised
rebellious children of our own and having acknowleged, even though
grudgingly, that our parents were smarter than we thought they were, we
find ourselves enjoying the same hypocrisy and materialism that we used to
scorn. We grew up, we made compromises, we learned to think in shades of
gray instead of black and white; we did everything we swore we'd never do,
so we're entitled to some rewards, right? Of course we are!
And so, at just about the time many of us are hitting that empty-nest,
mid-life crisis point of our lives, when we start saying things like "youth is
wasted on the young" and "if I knew then what I know now," as we begin to
rebel against the inevitability of encroaching age in much the same way we
used to rebel against our parents, what do we get? We get commercials that
hook our attention with the music of our younger years, music that carries
emotional weight and blatantly uses it to push our buttons. "Buy this
product or service, and you'll feel young again!" is the implicit subtext
behind the overt sales message. People my age would still like to think of
ourselves as rebels, even though we know we no longer are; we might
understand, intellectually, that watching ads for material goods because
music from our anti-materialistic youth has captured our attention makes no
sense, but, hey, what's a little cognitive dissonance among friends?
My complaints might be merely the sour grapes of the disenfranchised
fox; if I had more money, I might spend it on advertised stuff, and ignore the
cultural implications. I'd like to think, though, that even with unlimited
funds, I'd still notice how ridiculous and manipulative it is to market a
Cadillac by playing Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll Woman," or a Hummer 2
with "Happy Jack" by The Who. When George Thorogood asked, "Who Do
You Love?," I doubt that he had a Chevy Trailblazer SUV in mind, and
heaven help me if I ever confuse a Malibu with a "Magic Carpet Ride" in the
sense that Steppenwolf originally intended.
Granted, a few of the commercials are mildly amusing, particularly
when the music is very apt and played for tongue-in-cheek giggles. Years
ago, there was a Ford commercial that used Bob Seeger's "Making
Thunderbirds" as its hook; understandable, because it was a song that had
something to do with cars of the same marque, and Bob is a Motor City boy
from 'way back. I can almost forgive Carnival Cruise Lines for using Cyndi
Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," or Cingulair cell phones for using
"(Jenny) 867-5309," or the investment firm that uses bits from The
Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket," because there is some tenuous connection
between the product that's being pushed and the title or substance of the
song that's being used to push it. The Viagra commercial that uses Queen's
"We Are the Champions" behind slow-motion footage of balding, middle-
aged men bounding through the neighborhood with arms raised in victory
never fails to make me smile.
I am not so amused, however, by K-Mart using Donna Summer's
disco hit "(Looking For Some) Hot Stuff" to sell towels, or by Pantene using
"Get Right Back (to Where We Started From)" to schlep hair conditioner.
What does the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
have to do with Coca-Cola, unless it's some dark play on Coke (cola) vs.
coke (cocaine)? Does Coldwell Banker Realty really think we're gonna fall
for the Turtles' "Happy Together" to get us to choose them for our listing
agent? And what, if anything, does The Who's "Baba O'Reily" (think:
"Teenage Wasteland") have to do with HP Technology?
Advertisers, please: don't jerk my heartstings (or pull my chain) by
using music that meant something to me, or to someone else, in order to get
us to buy your junk. Pay some aspiring songwriter to slave away in your
jingle sweatshop, and come up with some original tunes that we can
associate with your product, instead of with the complicated nightmares of
our memories or the dreamy ideals of our youth. If any of my younger
readers don't get what I'm so ticked about, just you wait, watch, and listen.
If, ten years from now, you hear a commercial for deodorant that uses
Nirvana's "(Smells Like) Teen Spirit" to sell you personal odor protection,
just rebel, and say "gag me with a tune!"
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