TV Commercials: Is Nothing Sacred?

Posted by : | September 20, 2015

What’s up with current pop culture taking aim at sacred tropes from my formative years? I’ve noticed a whole spate of nods to iconic moments by great performers, and none of them are kindly. It’s a snarky teardown, a mean reduction played purely for the purposes of commercial virality. Not okay, kids.

Take the Kenny Rogers Geico commercial. Guy One tries to prove a point to Guy Two who’s just stated the obvious fact that everyone knows Geico can save you 15% in 15 minutes. He retorts, “Well did you know that playing cards with Kenny Rogers gets old pretty fast?” Cut to Kenny Rogers singing, beautifully and via a cappella, his most famous song from the beloved Gambler album, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…” His fellow card players look bored beyond, cutting him off with derisive looks. I tell you what, if I were lucky enough to be sitting at a card table with Kenny Rogers, and he wanted to bust out with The Gambler, my jaw would be on the floor and my hands would be clapping in wild admiration. Why is Kenny’s greatest hit not sacred? And of course why is he complicit in this take-down?

This is how you appropriately celebrate the master:

This Kenny Rogers one in particular feels incredibly mean spirited. There is no love, and there is absolutely no respect for a song that etched itself into our collective cultural heritage. It’s a gorgeous song: “On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound for nowhere…” the singer meets up with a mysterious man, a professional gambler, who teaches the first person of the narrative, and therefore us, the listeners, truly profound life lessons. You can almost hear the rhythmic thump of the train as they play cards well into the night:

“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep”

This is not the stuff of cheap commerciality. It’s not a moment to toss to the dogs of irony and snark. This is a sacred cultural artifact. And I don’t think I’m in any way overstating this. Behold the deeply offending commercial:

In my day, and that would be the day wherein my first-ever concert just happened to be Kenny on his Gambler tour, there was total agreement among consumers of pop culture that any artist who hawked their stardom for commercial purposes was a total sell-out. No one did it. I think Sting and others may have slunk off to Japan to appear in ads, but there was a strict divide between the church of artistry and the state of gross commercialism.

Then there’s Eddie Money doing a wink wink commercial of his own with Geico, selling “two tickets to paradise” as a travel agent. Again, this is one of his most famous songs. And here he is below tossing it to the jackals of fast money. Why?

I’m even going to defend David Hasselhoff’s honor against that Dodge car commercial that has him reprising his iconic Bay Watch role in a sort of ironic way:

And what about Salt-N-Pepa singing Push It in another Geico commercial? Did I laugh when they sang it at a Lamaze class? I totally did! But these women are such badasses and total icons.

Even Carnie Wilson gets cheapened by Progressive here:

Do they do it for the money, for a few minutes in a prominent spotlight? What do these famous artists, the heavyweight title holders of deepest zeitgeist, what do they need? I guess I’m a purist. I’m still appalled by Snoopy and the gang selling insurance.

It just feels like our current culture is more interested in viral moments than in thinking about how they’re re-imaginig and damaging iconic cultural moments and how hawking their own brand actually cheapens the brand of their subject. How they’re taking the original negatives and sullying them in this new exposure process. Because ultimately Geico and Dodge are the winners, are the behemoths, are the Sampsons in the room. And what it says when these stars so lauded and revered for these moments in particular, is that nothing is indeed sacred. I want to be the nostalgia police and protect these moments. If you want Kenny to get involved, why not ask him to record a new song for you?

You know, commercials have the power to elevate, too. Like the Lincoln car commercials with Matthew McConaughey. He looks super cool driving them and just desirable in every way. Do they ask him to caterwaul one of his “Alrightalrightalright” trinities? Or the Jim Beam ads with Mila Kunis, another super cool sexy powerful moment for a cultural commodity. She and Matthew come off amazing, and both brands are better for the collaboration: The car and the guy; the booze and the broad. She’s not reciting silly lines from That 70s Show. The commercials are actively driving these stars’ brands forward, evolving them into slick Madison Avenue personas.

Not so lucky are David, Kenny, Eddie, Salt-N-Pepa. Their appearances seem to have come at a price. A price, in my opinion, that is too high. There is a clear discrepancy among the value of these celebrity brands. Push It is a fabulously important cultural moment with an astounding message of raw demands for gender equality. It was the response to early hip-hop endemic sexism. Push It pushes back on the patriarchy, radically forcing a sexual sea change, placing the menfolks squarely on the bottom in bed. It was an anthem of instruction, that women have demands too, and that men better measure up or get out, its lyrics a Pied Piper call, “C’mon girls, let’s go show the guys…”. As the above Geico commercial illustrates, this song really pushed open doors, but on a paradigm-shifting stage. Geico attempting to take down and cheapen this? Oh hell no:

But it’s like the price of commercialism is an immediate blood oath to orphan your greatest moments, sacrificing them to the gods of commerce in a bubbling pit of ironic disgrace. You can have money and a shot at a viral YouTube video, but only if you let them totally undermine that which made you, ultimately and ironically, big enough for Geico and Dodge take notice of you in the first place! It’s the Judgement of Solomon conundrum, but these cultural parents are actually allowed to split their babies with big corporations.

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The bodies of our iconic cultural heritage are piling up in the sacrificial pit of the cult of commercialism. What’s next? Sting’s Message in a Bottle of Bud? Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World of Warcraft? Disney’s When You Wish Upon a Star Search? Okay now you add some! You add some it’s fun… and cathartic …

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