The Most Evil Concept Ever

Merrick, 31st October 2005ce

Celebrities endorsing products has been around for as long as the mass media advertising industry. We expected the Spice Girls to have sold us everything from mopeds to lollipops, but increasingly there is something else; artists of real worth with something to say, artists of vision and meaning, artists you could really believe in allowing their work to be used.

Town Called Malice, The Jam's sharp portrait of poverty and desperation in Thatcher's Britain has been recently selling cars. The Cure - also car salesmen with In Between Days - let Hewlett Packard plunder their magnum opus of heartbreak and isolation Disintegration in order to sell printers.

Some more obscure artists may like the fact that having their music used in ads will increase sales, but who's buying? People who buy ad-music, people less likely to have music as something that really speaks to them. It takes the depth of the music and changes it to breadth.

The current TV ads for Orange mobile phones use Brian Eno's Music For Airports as the soundtrack. Eno has always been an artist of real integrity, an intelligent and honourable man, never been one to chase the money. This, as he himself has said, is precisely why he's made such interesting and popular records. He's involved with many thoughtful projects, such as the Long Now Foundation, dedicated to encouraging a wiser future, and this year has, become more politically active than ever before. So why he chosen to take the corporate shilling to promote sales of unsustainable and environmentally destructive consumer goods?

Eno does not need the money. Aside of being the producer of numerous U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads albums, he co-wrote Heroes with Bowie and so gets half the writer's royalty. That in itself is - to use Noddy Holder's phrase for writing Merry Xmas Everybody - a pension plan.

Marcella Detroit from Shakespear's Sister has explained quite how much money we're talking about. When she was known as Marcia Levy, she was Eric Clapton's backing singer, and co-wrote Lay Down Sally with him. Just half the writer's royalty for that paid for a big house in Malibu, a boat and enough money for her and her husband to live there comfortably. Fuck knows what kind of money Layla and Wonderful Tonight must generate.

But anyway, that being the case we can imagine what the perennial global radio classic Heroes brings to Eno.

Some artists aren't fortunate enough to control their back catalogue and must suffer people abusing their music to advertise products, usually with the extra injustice of the raw deal that deprived them of control also depriving them of a decent royalty.

But with Brain Eno there can be little doubt that he owns all the rights to the piece. He's the sole composer and performer, and it was released on EG Editions, his own label. If any established label with an eye for commercial success at the time were in possession of such an item as a bargepole, they wouldn't have been using it to touch Music For Airports.

We can't believe he loves Orange so much that he really wants them to use his music. He, already a millionaire with enough guaranteed future income to ensure he and his family will never need a proper job, is plainly just doing it for the money. He is now just another whore at the capitalist gang-bang.

As U2's manager Paul McGuinness said in criticism of pop stars hawking Pepsi, what is the point of being Michael Jackson if all you've worked on and achieved is just a marketing tool for selling consumer items?

This, of course, was in the days before U2 caved in and took the money from Apple, doing iPod TV ads, appearing at iPod promotional events and even having a special U2 edition iPod.

It's a fair guess U2 would offer the same defence as Dire Straits gave in the mid 1980s when they promoted Philips CD players: it's to do with promoting a new format.

But Dire Straits and U2 didn't promote the format, they just promoted one manufacturer's player of the format. And do we think there wasn't any money for them from Apple, money negotiated to its maximum by U2's people?

When I was in a band, we used to play and organise benefit gigs with a lot of bands on the bill. Anyone who asked for more than expenses was told where to get off; if you want to profit from it, you don't believe in it enough as a cause. U2 could quite easily promote the format if they believe in it so much without recourse to plugging one manufacturer.

Henry Rollins justified advertising Gap clothing by saying that the money had gone towards publishing books that would never have been published otherwise, allowing creative expression to flourish. As talent is not bounded by class or nationality, I'm sure there are sweatshop workers who'd like their creative expression to flourish, but working sixteen hour days seven days a week doesn't give them chance. Their conditions aren't going to change as Gap's hand is strengthened - and thereby the anti-sweatshop movement weakened - thanks to Rollins' advertising.

But wouldn't these pressures get to everyone? Could anyone really say no to such easy money?

Yes, they could. When Jim Morrison was alive, The Doors were asked to sell Light My Fire to an ad for Buick cars. Jim was away, the other three said yes. When Jim found out he said he'd smash a Buick on stage at every concert if the ad went ahead. Buick swiftly pulled out.

The Doors credited all their songwriting to the four of them equally, and as such all have to agree on licensing their music. After the Buick debacle, a contract was drawn up making that fact unassailable.

But these days doesn't everyone cave in? Nope. Doors drummer John Densmore was once, against his better judgement, talked into letting Pirelli tyres use Riders On The Storm. Having seen the result, he's held out against every subsequent offer. Apple offering $4m? Cadillac SUVs offering $15m? He's told them to fuck off.

For the latter, Led Zeppelin stepped in to bend over instead and Cadillacs are now being sold to a soundtrack of Led Zep IV's Rock n Roll.

Densmore explained his steadfastness;

"People lost their virginity to this music, got high for the first time to this music. I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music, other people say they know someone who didn't commit suicide because of this music... On stage, when we played these songs, they felt mysterious and magic. That's not for rent."

"Everyone wanted him to do it," said John Branca, an attorney who worked on the Cadillac proposal. "I told him that, really, people don't frown on this anymore. It's considered a branding exercise for the music. He told me he just couldn't sell a song to a company that was polluting the world.

"I shook my head," Branca said, "but, hey, you have to respect that. How many of your principles would you reconsider when people start talking millions of dollars?"

You have to ask that question, especially if you're an artist with a lot to say but not a lot of money.

Top marks in the artist integrity stakes go to Julian Cope. In the early 1990s he had a spiritual awakening and started recording the eco-conscious Peggy Suicide album. Almost as if to test the strength of his convictions, he got his first offers of ad-music at that time.

TDK offered a hefty sum for using Beautiful Love to advertise blank tapes. That's not so bad, it's kind of music related, right? That was the excuse Dire Straits gave for taking the Philips CD money. Even The Clash said they sold Should I Stay Or Should I Go to Levi's cos Levi's were kind of cool and if a margarine that had wanted it they'd probably have turned it down. Paul McCartney had just taken TDK money for his tour sponsorship and nobody complained (admittedly, they were too busy decrying his bigger sponsorship from Barclaycard). But Cope said no.

Then Levi's came in with a Really Big Offer, wanting to use East Easy Rider for a global campaign.

It must surely have been tempting. He had clearly started on a commercial decline. He had also just started a family. There was no guarantee that he wouldn't be working in an office or stacking shelves in a supermarket in five years time. He had found so much to say, and a big chunk of money would give him the chance to keep saying it.

He dithered for three days, then declined.

In doing so, he not only preserved the dignity and credibility of his work, but he sets the bar high for the rest of us. He makes it clear what a fucking sell-out people like Eno are, and he dares the rest of us to maintain our standards.

The use of Music For Airports on the Orange ad has soiled a piece of music that really meant something to its listeners. Taking the ad money doesn't just make people lose faith in artists they love. There's a flipside to it; it can discourage the new listener. I've had precisely this experience just recently.

Claire Fauset is a performance poet of such talent and power that she commonly has audience members in tears. When I first went to her blog, there was a link saying simply 'God'. I had to click it. It took me to the site of Taylor Mali.

I'm largely unfamiliar with slam poetry, but Claire and all others I know of who are involved talk of Mali in these awed, untouchable tones. He wins national poetry slams in America year after year.

Not knowing much about him, my first click was naturally enough to the biog page. It told me how he makes his living these days as a voiceover artist, and was the voice of Burger King.

What? A poet of such passion, honesty, idealism and clear vision as Claire Fauset is in awe of a Burger King voiceover guy? Not just that, but one who is so proud of it that he believes it warrants a mention given a few short paragraphs to describe himself?

Despite Mali's enormous talent and unarguable prowess as a poet and performer, what does it mean if he willingly dresses himself in puppet strings? How can we believe anything he ever says? Not only will he say anything he's paid to say with just as much conviction as he delivers his poetry, but what if he had a point to make that conflicted with the interests of his corporate paymasters? Would you trust him to speak up?

Trust is the real issue here. His voice is not trustworthy. When he so readily says things he doesn't believe, who's to say what parts of what he says can be trusted?

Mali's poems talk of his dayjob as a teacher, proudly declaring

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it's going to be one eighth grader at a time

Then he goes out, one entire nation of kids at a time, and changes their minds. Any work he may have done about getting people to think for themselves or to sharpen their intelligence is undone millions of times over as he makes them buy junk food, stuff that - as we've seen in Supersize Me - literally makes its consumers stupid.

He talks of how, when challenged by a lawyer to say what he makes, he replies that he 'makes a difference'. He certainly does. He makes people buy things they don't want by lying to them.

Oh, but surely he doesn't make them buy things. They have a choice, don't they?

Burger King, and Mali's other employers, know they will sell a lot more of their product if he does the voiceover. If that were not the case, they would not employ him in the first place. His powers of persuasion, honed on the from-the-heart slam poet stage, are very strong. He does indeed make the audience buy the products he's selling.

He is, his biog says, a 'voiceover artist'. What is the art in 'voiceover artist'? It's the art of sounding enthused, authoritative, knowing, wise, cool or passionate about something when you're really not. It is the art of lying. Not lying for any greater good, but lying to people so they give your paymaster their money and you get a tiny cut of the take.

He says you have to 'speak with authority', but what does it mean if that power and conviction is the same voice that he uses to sell us superfluous consumer goods that we don't need to enrich people we don't like?

Someone who says whatever the corporation pays them to is no longer an artist, they are a billboard. Whatever is paid to be pasted up is what goes up, they have abdicated their believability. The real origin of what they say is not in their heart, but in the advertising executives offices.

Mali does a poem addressing his voiceover work. It is a clever ratatat collage of snippets but it offers no explanation of why he does it, or even much meaning beyond 'I do this because I can'.

Taking the easy money of doing adverts is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in an established artist. By surrendering to the pressure to become just another brand, just a saleable commodity, or - less even than that - a mere sales tool for vacuous or actively destructive commodities, they tell us a lot about themselves. They tell us their work is not paramount to them any longer; their view of the original reasons for doing their work has become obscured; their conscience is gagged; they don't mean enough to themselves any more. That being so, how can they mean anything to us?

Bill Hicks described marketing and advertising as 'the most evil concept ever'. Surely an exaggeration? What about war, torture, Chris De Burgh? But with those at least there's a purpose of belief and commitment, however misguided; marketing and advertising are all about lying by inference, by association or just plain outright.

It uses vast resources and hires some of the best creative minds alive in order to make people misunderstand themselves and the world around them, to discourage and thwart critical thinking. Advertising exists to make us feel more alienated, and make us pay for that feeling. Its sole intended purpose is to deceive, its primary effect is to make people feel worse by promoting a deep spiritual emptiness.

It works by divining our deepest desires and then saying they will be realised if we only buy the product being advertised. Then we buy the product, find our deepest desires haven't come to pass and feel a deeper yearning, a great deflation and further removed from what we were hoping for in the first place. In the meantime, we've also got poorer as the advertiser scuttles off laughing to the bank with our money.

We end up trapped in jobs that mean nothing to us, led away from things that would enliven and unify us by false promises that, once they are seen through, make us even more empty and hopeless. These things combine to desensitise us, to make us feel less connection, have less time to care, to make us more prone to all those other things - such as war, torture or Chris de Burgh - that we might suggest as the more evil concept.

The current IKEA campaign features a happy nuclear family, going for smiling walks in autumn woodland, giggling on a summer lawn, and a young couple browsing a bookstall somewhere that looks like Victoria Embankment or perhaps by the Seine. 'Welcome to life outside work' is the caption. Using a tactic previously employed by Dove soap's 'campaign for real beauty' ads, it's presented not as an advert for consumer goods but as a campaign for something socially beneficial, even going so far as to have the internet domain,

IKEA have found that people resent their jobs - unsurprising as most people spend most of their waking hours at, going to or coming from work that is so crap they're only doing it for the money.

So, the idea is that if you buy an IKEA kitchen it will cost less than other kitchens, and with the resulting saving you can afford to take a cut in your working hours. The message is 'spend money and you will need to earn less'.

The saving in getting your kitchen from IKEA instead of somewhere else is not going to be so great as to lead to a large reduction in hours. My advice is to do as I have; make the largest saving by not buying a new kitchen at all, and don't think there's a way of spending money in order to not spend money.

IKEA's oxymoronic pitch is pretending to offer freedom, whereas they are actually offering greater slavery. Which is one of the central tenets of the advertising age, as George Orwell foresaw.




'Here's the deal, folks. You do a commercial, you're off the Artistic Roll-Call forever. End of story, OK? You're another corporate fucking shill, you're another whore at the capitalist gang-bang, and if you do a commercial there's a price on your head, everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.'
- Bill Hicks