And Now, a Hook from Our Sponsor

Orchestra on airplane Awaiting takeoff on a recent flight I had no choice but to watch the little screen in front of me once it turned on. It was a United Airlines promo with snippets of Rhapsody in Blue faded in every few seconds. Tears sprang to my eyes each time. I hate that I’m so manipulable! I hate that United Airlines owns the Gershwin effect and can hook me at will. I hate (yet must accept) that Rhapsody in Blue really does sound more fabulous than ever because it evokes flying around the country with good-looking professionals in dark blue uniforms.

How does an ad campaign become a great cultural value in its own right, an apt vehicle for a great musical value? No doubt by resonating in a precise way with our personal and collective experience and setting up a reciprocal amplification between the ad subject and the chosen music. Has this sort of grand wedding of commercial-cultural value with musical value ever happened with a rock piece?

One of the greatest examples of this must be David Fincher’s gorgeously shot and paced Nike ad using “Instant Karma” to propose that we all shine on when we go a-sporting (1992). The song indeed sounds very sportlike here in combining an easy-yet-forceful swinging groove (like a runner’s good pace) with explosive outbursts by the drums (like a boxer’s attack). The ad may have a problem in being loaded up too much with actual superstars (Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Michael Johnson, Joan Benoit Samuelson) for its democratic message. But it does have some cute kids. In any case, we all shine on can’t be refuted or refused, and Lennon and Nike become doubly undeniable together.

Something else has stuck in my memory from around the same time. In 1993 there was a short-lived series of Chevy Camaro ads using Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” and the tagline “From the Country that Invented Rock and Roll.” The premise sounds commercial in every bad way and yet something in this lodged, it palpably lodged. One ad contained a Thelma and Louise-y moment of two young women flying down the highway in a red Camaro and sassing a truck driver (or check that, I may be filling this in from Thelma and Louise—anyway, you will see a pair of such women in the available youtube) that resonates perfectly with how “Fire” is a kind of flying-on-the-ground experience, a power-skidding rather than a stomping thanks to Mitch Mitchell’s off-beats.[1]

Why shouldn’t a Camaro be the car version of rock ‘n’ roll flying and “Fire” the matching rock version of muscle-car motoring? I may die without ever driving a Camaro, but with “Fire” I feel I’ve gotten the point.


Here’s another marriage of song and sponsor that strongly affects my view of both. I think it was the Air Force ad, not pop radio, that first exposed me to “I Can See Clearly Now” (Johnny Nash, 1972)—a song so miraculously clear, clear of everything else, that one always feels like one is hearing it for the first time and that one has broken through to the blue, like in a rising airplane.


[1] Snare hits on 4-and, 1-and, and 2-and in the two measures before the singing starts e.g.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Identities, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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