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Commercial Success

In the Eighties, your grandmother listened to enough Eric Clapton to join in any discussion of guitar heroes. Of course, grandma only heard one Clapton song during the past ten years--and that short number was always interrupted at the end by a commercial announcer proclaiming, "The night belongs to Michelob." But by 1989--through sheer repetition alone--she'd heard enough of ol' Slowhand's style to pick out his influence on any early George Harrison solo album.

In the Eighties, too, those kids you could never tear away from Duran Duran cassettes long enough to check out the really good stuff on your old Motown discs suddenly turned into walking encyclopedias of Sixties rock, gleefully singing more verses of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Respect" than you could remember yourself. And out of nowhere, preschoolers whose favorite singers had been Big Bird and Kermit were bopping around the house humming "Revolution" and "Who Do You Love."

These were the entirely possible results of the rock music/advertising marriage, a once unthinkable union that turned rock stars into product pushers and remade classic hits into thirty-second jingles throughout the Eighties.

Rock's migration to prime-time TV even made former bad boys like Lou Reed and David Bowie as common a guest in the Middle American living room as Ronald McDonald and John Madden. But there were, of course, negative sides to all this. When the Rolling Stones, rock's ultimate outlaws, became the first respectable rock band to accept corporate sponsorship by welcoming Jovan perfume aboard on their 1981 U.S. tour, the critics cried "sellout" and heralded the end of the music's antiestablishment stance.

But as the Stones close out the Eighties with a barrage of Budweiser commercials on TV and their own line of upscale clothing in the department stores, it's clear that there's no turning back. As we bid adieu to the Eighties, then, let us pay tribute to all those exiles from Main Street who've learned to succeed on Madison Avenue:

THE JACKSON JIVE It was Michael Jackson who pioneered the concept of the "event" commercial--a music-filled spot so hyped and hotly anticipated it seemed like something you needed to buy tickets to before turning on your TV. The first pair of Jackson's seven (to date) Pepsi commercials, premiered on the 1984 Grammy Awards and publicized for weeks before, resulted in both the soft drink company's best sales performance in six years and a how-to article in Rolling Stone by PepsiCo prez Roger Enrico.

The cola company's association with the star was not without its sticky moments, though. Jackson, who almost gave his hair for Pepsi when a flash pot ignited too close to his head in the first spot, openly admitted to never touching the teeth-rotting fizz juice himself. And his second series of ads, tied to the release of his Bad album, were delayed so long Pepsi ended up employing (and exhausting) the appeal of two other major pop artists--David Bowie and Tina Turner--just to fill the gap.

Coca-Cola, meanwhile, had also attempted to hitch its wagon to the Michael magic. The George Michael magic, that is, which the company severely overestimated. While the singer's Faith album was the big winner on the '88 Grammys show, his event ad (interspersing scenes of the star taking the stage with shots of a Mexican matador entering the ring) proved a dud for Diet Coke. The spot was soon replaced by a previous ad featuring talking penguins.

"REVOLUTION" WILL BE TELEVISED In 1985, Northern Songs (newly purchased by Michael Jackson for a cool $47.5 million), licensed the Beatles catalogue for use in commercials. It was a limited use: The advertisers were forbidden to change any lyrics; for example, no "Yesterday/All my fabrics were so dull and gray . . . ." But the move nearly sparked a revolution among Beatle worshipers. Money can't buy you love, maybe, but it bought the following advertisers some fab tunes:

Lincoln-Mercury--"Help!" and "Good Day Sunshine." Employing sound-alike singers, hand-picked by George Martin's production company, and recordings supervised by the former Beatles producer himself, these were the first, and ultimately the least objectionable, of the Lennon and McCartney jingles. The spot for "Help!" featured a cast of baby boomers engaged in frantic chase scenes reminiscent of Richard Lester's goofy directing style that was faithful to the movie of the same name.

Chrysler--"Something." With a recording more closely resembling Old Blue Eyes' version of the Abbey Road standard, this ad for the luxury LeBaron undoubtedly slipped by a lot of Fab Four fans. Not George Harrison, however, who eventually went on MTV to protest the increasing appropriation of his band's legacy into "adverts."

Nike--"Revolution." The last straw. This black-and-white ad, showcasing a carelessly edited mix of the actual Beatles recording (a violation of the licensing agreement), inspired the first true group effort by the surviving Beatles in almost twenty years. They sued. Like the old days, too, a new Fifth Beatle suddenly emerged in the press: their lawyer.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern