Selling Out Is No Longer A Thing

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Super Bowl XLVIII (that’s 48) was not exactly memorable. The Denver Broncos were overmatched by the Seattle Seahawks in every way a team can be overmatched, and suffered one of the most lopsided losses in Super Bowl history.

But I think this year will still be remembered, because for at least the last 25 years the Super Bowl has been about a lot more than just the game on the field. It’s about Hollywood showing off all its biggest coming attractions for the new year, and the halftime show, and of course, it’s about the commercials. And this seemed to be the year that commerce announced its hard-earned, long-fought victory over the forces of artistic integrity and the notion of “selling out.”

It wasn’t so long ago that, for rich and famous movie stars and musicians, appearing in commercials was seen as something tacky. Why would anyone allow their face and voice be used to shill for a product when they clearly don’t need the money and doing so would damage their artistic reputation? This is why, for many years, movie stars only appeared in commercials overseas — they (and their agents and managers) want to create an aura of royalty, of being special beings that don’t sleep, don’t eat, don’t do what happens after you eat, the better to keep their prices high and their faces on the posters.

I guess they’re not paying movie stars what they used to, because in recent years their resolve to protect their reputations from such petty Earthly concerns as making money has been eroding; it’s getting harder to think of a movie star who doesn’t do commercial voice-overs than one who does.

But during the Super Bowl, it felt like someone had fired a starter gun, and just like that, all the celebrities were off to the races, hawking cars and drinks and snacks, reputations be damned: James Franco for Ford. Scarlett Johansson for SodaStream. Ben Kingsley for Jaguar. Stephen Colbert for Wonderful Pistachios. A (painfully unfunny) Seinfeld reunion for Crackle. Larry Fishburne reprising Morpheus from The Matrix (and, inexplicably, singing) for Kia. Ellen Degeneres for Beats by Dre. U2 for Bank of America. Arnold Schwarzenegger an for Bud Light. Bruce Willis for Honda. And most jarringly, Bob Dylan, the voice of a generation, the face of the counterculture, the man who ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, who wouldn’t even participate in the marketing of himself, appeared in not one but two commercials: a yogurt ad about a bear wrecking a convenience store was scored with his 1966 hit “I Want You,” and a long, patriotic spot for Chrysler, declaring the primacy of America in car-building.

 

Twitter exploded in anti-sellout outrage (selloutrage?), but in and of themselves, Dylan’s ads are pretty harmless. “I Want You” is hardly “Masters of War” in terms of political stance, and “Buy American” is a fine sentiment that I have no problem with (though I would have liked it better if it weren’t tied to a specific brand). And the truth is, it’s not even Dylan’s first ad: he did some commercials for Victoria’s Secret a few years ago that didn’t cause much of a stir, I guess because everyone knows that if you get a chance to stand on set with a bunch of Victoria’s Secret models, you say yes (after you’re finished effusively thanking whatever god you pray to). Still, though, taken with all the movie star commercials, it felt like a sea change was happening, that Hollywood has collectively decided there is no longer any shame in doing an ad, that no one has time any longer for the Artistic Integrity Police, that it’s Game On and everyone who doesn’t sell out is just a sucker.

But the fun didn’t stop when the game was over. After the game, Fox ran an All New Special Night Special Time episode of its hit comedy New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel. Ms. Deschanel took some heavy flak for her appearance in an iPhone commercial last year (flak that Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get for his ad in the same campaign, maybe because he didn’t ask his phone if it was raining while looking out the window), but she wasn’t in any Super Bowl ads. Instead, she turned her whole show into an ad, handing over an entire scene to the new Ford Fusion, as two of the characters bantered hilariously (not hilariously) about how the Ford Fusion (not “Ford,” not “Fusion” — “Ford Fusion”)’s great gas mileage was a literal turn-on and then arguing the merits of whether gas mileage can or can’t be a literal turn-on. It was even less funny than it sounds. The whole episode was constructed around a visit to Prince‘s house, and after Prince helped to solve Zooey’s romantic problem of the week, he invited her to sing along with him, and — can you believe it? — Prince also released a new song on iTunes last night! What are the odds that the timing would work out like that?

I can’t say that I love the idea of otherwise great sitcoms selling ad space within their scripts, or unimpeachably beloved rock stars doing car commercials, or movie stars doing all the other commercials, but that seems to be where we’re headed, and when history looks back for watershed moments that might have led to product placement during the State Of The Union address, or 22-minute commercials being punctuated with two 4-minute show breaks instead of the other way around, Super Bowl XLVIII will get its own chapter.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong — as the revenue streams available to artists continue to peter out, it’s hard to judge anyone for doing what they need to do to pay the bills — but as a great man once said, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and the Super Bowl was the start of a monsoon.

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