“Punk Rock” Ads

The ad is for a Limited Edition Chrysler 300c, which features the “hardcore style of John Varvatos.”

It is littered with punk rock signifiers, starting with the location where the car is delivered, 315 Bowery, the former location of punk’s Mecca, CBGB.  It now houses a John Varvatos store (which caused a huge debate over whether Varvatos was disrespecting or preserving the legendary, but already shuttered “Home of Underground Rock”).

And right there, standing next to Varvatos is Iggy Pop.  An unidentified Iggy Pop.  Is Iggy really now so well known that he no longer requires identification?  Or is this supposed to make aging punks feel cool?  Part of the in crowd that recognizes punk rock’s forefather, part of the in crowd that will buy one of the 2,000 cars in this limited edition?

Punk rock as marketing tool has come a long way from the 1992 ad campaign for the Subaru Impreza ad in which Jeremy Davies declared, “This car is like punk rock”:

Kind of campy fun now, but it caused serious cognitive dissonance then.  Coming just one year after the year punk broke, it was still too punk for mainstream buyers, while alienating punks by reminding them just how much “real punk” had been commodified.  In other words, the same problem as the then-recent “This Isn’t Your Father’s Oldsmobile” ad campaign that alienated the company’s loyal older buyers without enticing new, younger ones.

Just a few years later, Nike used real punk rock (well, proto-punk rock) in its 1996 Olympics ad campaign, Iggy & the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”:

Still a bit shocking, but it fit well with Nike’s edgy image and an ad that focused on athletes pushing their limits.  Sure, it might have alienated some punks, but they wore Chucks anyway.  Of course, Nike had the last laugh when it bought the Converse brand in 2003, which you can now buy from the John Varvatos Store.

A major shift came in 2001, though, when the Royal Caribbean Cruise line introduced a long-running ad campaign using Iggy’s “Lust for Life” as its soundtrack.  Instead of selling rebellion, Iggy’s music was now being used to sell wholesome fun.

It took a year for the backlash to begin, when Nat Ives noted the irony of using “a rousing ode to drug life from a punk firebrand who has acknowledged his own copious substance abuse” in an ad campaign for family cruises.  The backlash grew steadily until 2005, when Slate readers voted it the “Worst Ad Song Ever,” with one reader wryly noting, “Nothing says maritime comfort like a song about shooting up junk.”  But how could anyone who already knew the song not appreciate the irony of its use?  It was one huge Situationist Détournement even Malcolm McLaren had to have envied.  But Royal Caribbean was not targeting these hipper than thou pundits and continued to use their “theme” for at least seven years.

It also brought Iggy a whole new audience.  Sure, he was a cult hero, but he had never had a top 40 hit and was seldom played on the radio.  So this represented major airplay for him, dramatically raising his own brand awareness along with the cruise line’s.  He wasn’t selling out, but cashing in.  He explained:

That song started picking up steam about 10 years ago, started cropping up here and there. And then the Royal Caribbean thing turned out to be the biggest use. . . .  But I actually enjoyed Royal Caribbean’s usage. And to me, it’s just great that it’s out there in any form for someone to hear.”

And in 2006, Iggy placed a second song into heavy ad rotation, the Teddybears’ “I’m a Punk Rocker,” with Iggy repeating the title over the band’s motorik beat:

“Punk rock” had now been totally turned on its head.  The movement that had long (not always convincingly) heralded its independence was now selling Cadillacs, the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption and making it in corporate America.

So perhaps what is strange about the Chrysler ad is not that it features Iggy, or even that he is not identified, but that the ad does not use his music.  Instead, it features a rising new band, the Chromatics, using a song of theirs fresh off the Drive soundtrack, “Tick of the Clock” (not quite so fresh, really, but their self-release several years earlier had not received nearly as much attention), saying this is not just your father’s punk rock, it’s also something trendy and new.  And if you buy it, you just might still be trendy, too.

Punk has come a long way.  From CBGB to, well, John Varvatos.


3 thoughts on ““Punk Rock” Ads

  1. Met Museum NY, collaborating with Fasion Institute of Technology, is doing a major exhibit called “Punk: Chaos to Couture” this summer. This seems to be Punk’s year.

    • Thanks for the reminder, Wendy. I want to get up to see that before it closes. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a current exhibition on David Bowie’s fashion, but I won’t be able to hop across the pond to see it.

  2. Pingback: Iggy Sighting | Societe Anonyme Inc

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