Music News

Madonna Mauls Madison Avenue

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.

Surprise, surprise.

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!'"

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern