Kevin Ryder had already played the new Madonna single, "Like a Prayer," three times in a row when he started taking calls from the listeners frantically lighting up the phone lines in the broadcast booth.
"KZZP, hi," said the nighttime deejay and assistant program director for Phoenix's top-rated contemporary-hits station. "So what did you think of the new Madonna song?" "Excellent!" came the chirpy voice of a young female fan. "Definitely!"
"Did you see the commercial when we simulcast it at 7:11?" (To guarantee a win in the highly contested race to be first Top 40 station in town to air the long-anticipated Madonna song--the first single by a major recording artist ever to debut on a commercial rather than on radio or music video--the station had slyly patched into the audio signal of a stereo TV tuner to air the soundtrack of the spot as it was carried over NBC during the top-rated Cosby Show on March 2.) "Yes," answered the girl emphatically, but the commercial tag threw her. "Was that the video for it?" she asked.
"No, that's not the video. That's just a Pepsi commercial."
"Ohhh . . . "
The young listener's confusion was understandable. Hell, the two-minute "Make a Wish" Pepsi commercial, showcasing 94 seconds of the never-before-heard "Like a Prayer," certainly looks more like a big music video production than a simple soft-drink ad, with its fast, rhythmic editing, its stylish mix of color and black-and-white footage and its subtle, glancing shots of the Pepsi product and logo unobtrusively inserted between the topnotch choreographed sequences. Even the spot's story line, which has Madonna watching a home movie of her eighth birthday party and then magically trading places with her younger self to go dancing through her Catholic girls school, cavorting in a Fifties-style diner and singing with a gospel choir, seems custom-made to show off more of the sultry superstar than the can of cola she happens to be hoisting up at the end.
TV viewers, of course, have become used to this sort of thing, what with the preponderance of cola and beer commercials featuring popular rock stars in what amount to thirty-second versions of their latest videos with quick glimpses of the product tossed in. Just look at Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" Pepsi ad, Robert Plant's offer of a "Tall Cool One" for Coke, Steve Winwood's ode to "What the Night Can Do," made for Michelob, or Glenn Frey's "Livin' Right" video workout for US Swim & Fitness clubs--commercials virtually indistinguishable from their respective music videos except for the product samples flying through the air on every other beat.
At first glance, the Madonna commercial appeared to be just the latest entry in this new genre of cross-promotional video-ads--although clearly an exceptional one. (In an "Ad Review" published in the trade journal Advertising Age four days after the "Make a Wish" premiere, columnist Bob Garfield gave the spot a three-and-a-half-star rating, calling the exquisitely photographed and choreographed work "the best commercial of its genre" for attaining that elusive "perfect balance of entertainment and sell.")
Indeed, it was easy to watch the two-minute extravaganza and imagine it as a longer-form music video, with the eleven quick shots of the Pepsi product and logo edited out and more lingering shots of the sexy singer substituted in. And surely that's what most Madonna fans--and PepsiCo execs--expected to see when the actual video for the song premiered on MTV the next day.
On Friday morning, March 3, MTV managing news editor Mike Shore walked into the cable music video network's New York offices and told the receptionist, "Now you know, the Madonna video's gonna be on at 3, so be prepared. At about 3:05, you're gonna start getting irate calls."
For Shore and the other MTV staffers who had gotten to preview the clip--a potent blend of provocative religious and sexual imagery which shows, among other things, a scantily clad Madonna dancing in front of a field of burning crosses and kissing a brought-to-life statue of a black saint in a church--the irony of Pepsi's new $5 million woman following up their mega-event with such a decidedly counterapproach was wickedly funny. And when the news filtered down from the ad department later that weekend that Pepsi was, in fact, pulling its Madonna commercial from MTV, where it was scheduled to run exclusively in both full-length and sixty- and thirty-second versions for the balance of March, and filling the purchased time slots with more showings of the Robert Palmer ads, it was just the kind of thing these hip rock 'n' roll types live for.
"The minute I heard about that, it was so easy to imagine some Pepsi-Cola bottler in Alabama seeing her video and just totally hitting the roof," Shore chuckles giddily. "She's got burning crosses, she's making it on the floor of a church with a black man--I mean, holy cow! This is a role model for Pepsi? I mean, on one hand, you wanna say, `Well, who the hell did they think they were getting in bed with in the first place?' Madonna has always courted controversy, you know. How naive could they be? But then you just gotta picture them seeing the video and going, `Oh, my God! Not this!'"
For their part, Pepsi officials--who didn't get to see the video until the day of the ad premiere--have steadfastly refused to acknowledge any such scenario as the basis behind their decision to pull indefinitely the commercials. "The campaign is on track," insists Pepsi spokesperson Tod McKenzie. "The plan was to introduce the music first of all, and then to have a supporting campaign that follows at a later date." "Yeah, that's what they keep saying," Shore says skeptically. "They insist, `Well, we're still going ahead with our original plan, which is to make a huge amount of hype for this ad and then not show anything after that.' Which I'm sure is their usual plan, right? Riiight."
The hoopla generated around the Madonna campaign was indeed of massive proportions, even by Pepsi's standards. From the way it was promoted weeks beforehand with its own "teaser" commercial (seen by 650 million viewers worldwide), to the way its premiere was hyped by the media, to the way initial radio play of the single was orchestrated to follow hot on the heels of the ad's debut (Warner Bros. had distributed twelve-inch singles with five alternate mixes of the song to radio but had forbidden stations from playing a beat of it until the ad was shown), the "Make a Wish" spot was treated like a major musical event. In Phoenix, one of the nation's most competitive markets for breaking new hits on the radio, the contest to nab the allegiance of the thousands of Madonna fans desperately seeking another taste of the music they had just heard on the commercial was so ridiculously fierce, radio-button pushers were treated to a hilarious game of programming "chicken" as the city's three Top 40 outlets played, for most of the hour following the spot, nothing but the five slightly varied mixes of the instant hit over and over again.
Madonna, in fact, was able to co-opt the momentum generated by all of Pepsi's efforts for her own promotional means (the week after the ad aired, the "Like a Prayer" single was added to the most playlists in radio history, according to Radio and Records, surpassing even "We Are the World") while leaving her deep-pocketed financiers with egg on their faces, which sent a shock wave through both the advertising and beverage industries.
"It is a gamble whenever you hitch your wagon to someone of that notoriety," offers Alan Wolf, editor of Beverage World magazine, "and it might make some soft-drink companies a little more cautious of what rock stars they choose as spokespersons in the future. But I don't think it's gonna dampen their ties to the rock music industry. Because young people and teen-agers are still the largest market that they're after, and rock 'n' roll is still the best way to appeal to that market."
For rock 'n' roll fans, however, who've watched MTV with a cynical eye as the line between music video as art form and music video as marketing tool has become increasingly blurred, Madonna's little Trojan-horse foray into capitalism can be seen as one of the few revolutionary acts left for today's success-conscious rock star.
"There seems to be this complete loss of concern over the basic idea of actually `selling out,' you know?" says Mike Shore, who claims to subscribe still to hippie-holdout Neil Young's tenet that any rock stars who allow their music to be used to sell a product are "whoring" themselves. "That's like a long-gone issue to worry about. Now it's a question of `How subtle is the sellout gonna be?' That seems to be the attitude. You know: The business of America is business, we're a long way from the Sixties, and here we are. That kind of thing.
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"But at least Madonna seems to be having a little fun [with that pretense]," Shore adds. "I'm sure she was very deliberate about making that video so controversial. She's no dummy; she's very smart. And look what's happened since that video appeared: There's been nothing but Madonna headlines all week. Oh yeah, she's probably been having a good laugh about this whole thing."
All the way to the bank.
"No, that's not the video. That's just a Pepsi commercial."
"The Madonna video's gonna be on at 3, so be prepared. At about 3:05, you're gonna start getting irate calls."