Ray Charles performing “America the Beautiful” prior to a Boston Red Sox baseball game, April 2003. AP photo.
There is probably no more soulful a version of “America The Beautiful” than that performed by legendary bluesman Ray Charles. Also an accomplished jazz, gospel, and country-and-western virtuoso, Ray Charles shone through movingly whenever he performed “America The Beautiful” — as he did in many of his performances generally. But with this song in particular his interpretation often moved listeners to tears and/or deep patriotic feeling.
Charles’ version of the song, or part of it, was featured in a 2011 TV advertisement that ran during the 2011 World Series. It was used as the soundtrack for a Chevrolet ad touting the car company’s 100th anniversary. The 60-second ad, offered below, shows a sequence of hand-held family-album photos of older Chevrolet car and truck models juxtaposed against more recent American scenes and iconic moments. With Charles providing the requisite “American” music in the ad, Chevy was trying to imbue itself and its models with a sense of American history — and viewers of the ad with a patriotic feeling. They may well have succeeded. Chevrolet has a long history of trying to associate its name and products with American patriotism, and with Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” in this ad, they were certainly hitting some persuasive notes. But the story that follows here is more about Ray’s history with this particular song than it is about Chevy’s cars and trucks.
The Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” is a much-loved song by many Americans, and is generally regarded as something of a classic. His version of the song dates to the early 1970s when he and friend Quincy Jones, the music producer, first recorded it. Since then, and over the last 40 years, Charles’ version of “America The Beautiful” has had periods of notable popularity and political use. During his career, Charles performed the song numerous times, and in later years, often in prime-time televised venues such as presidential conventions, 4th-of-July gatherings, the SuperBowl, World Series, and other major events. More on the history of these performances and the Ray Charles song in a moment. First, a brief look at “America the Beautiful’s” origin and creation.
1890s “Purple Mountains…”
Professor Katherine Bates was inspired by America’s beauty.
“America the Beautiful” was first published as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895. Bates was a professor of English Literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who in the summer of 1893 visited Pike’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. There she was struck by the views of the mountains and landscape laid before her, which helped inspire the opening lines of her poem. Bates had traveled across the country that summer, visited the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago, and crossed the American agricultural heartland on her way to Colorado.
Statue of Katherine Lee Bates on grounds of Falmouth, MA library.
Her poem first appeared under the name “America” in the July 4th 1895 edition of The Congregationalist, a church periodical. The poem was later revised by Bates in 1904 and 1914. Separately, Samuel A. Ward, a church organist and choirmaster, had earlier written some music for other purposes. In 1910, his music and Bates’ poem were combined and published as the song “America the Beautiful.” The song caught on with the American people and became popular.
However, another American song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would become the national anthem. That song had been written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after Key had witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. By 1889, the song was in official use by the U.S. Navy, and by 1916, the President. It was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution in March 1931. However, over the years, some have argued that “America the Beautiful” would serve as a better national anthem, and periodically the song has been proposed to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as National Anthem. And for some, the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” makes a persuasive case for making that song the National Anthem.
1972 Ray’s Version
Cover art for CD of the Ray Charles album, “A Message From the People,” 1972.
Ray Charles had become a popular rhythm and blues artist by the 1960s, with a number of hit songs topping the music charts of that day. In 1972 Charles was with the ABC recording company, and had set out to record an album of songs about America and its people, which later became, A Message From The People. It included ten songs, among them, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Abraham, Martin and John,” and “America The Beautiful,” all produced by Quincy Jones. Charles sang “America the Beautiful” in a slow, rocking tempo, removing and/or reordering some verses, and emphasizing sections of the song that focus on the bravery of American heroes. “Then I put a little country church backbeat on it and turned it my way,” said Charles of the song in one interview. On the 1972 album cover, shown at right, the cover art includes sketches of martyred American leaders – Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy — seen in light background.
45 rpm single of “America the Beautiful” – “arranged & adapted” by Ray Charles.
Of the album, Charles explained that he approached it with the intention of including songs “about some of the wrongs of our country” but also “wanted to show what was beautiful and great” about it. The album was recorded on the ABC/Tangerine label (Tangerine being Charles’ label that ABC distributed). It was released along with a single of “America the Beautiful.” The album hit No. 52 on the Billboard albums chart in 1972, but Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” did not attract much attention at the time. He did, however, perform the song on national TV in 1972, appearing on the The Dick Cavett Show in September that year – a performance that can be found on DVD and on YouTube. Thereafter, and gradually over the years, Charles began performing the song more often during his concerts, depending on the audience and context. By 1984, however, the Charles version of “America the Beautiful” received some major national exposure.
1980s Republican Convention
1981 Inauguration. First Lady Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan with Ray Charles after his performance.
A victim of racial prejudice during his life and musical career, Ray Charles had supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s and also provided financial support to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. But Ray Charles was also his own man politically and often hard to pigeonhole. At times he called himself a Hubert Humphrey Democrat (moderate-centrist), but he also became involved with the Republicans. In the early 1970s, he appeared in performance at Richard Nixon’s White House. In 1981, he played at President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural festivities. And as a spokesman for disability issues during the early 1980s, he worked with Reagan who signed a proclamation on behalf of the disabled. Reagan helped launch the National Organization On Disability’s Ad Council campaign which featured Ray Charles in its ads. The Reagans also appeared briefly with Charles after he performed at some Country Music Association events in 1983, one of which was held at the White House.
President and Nancy Reagan with Ray Charles after President Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Dallas, Texas. August 23, 1984.
By August 1984, as President Reagan and vice president, George H.W. Bush ran for their second term, Ray Charles appeared and performed at the Republican Party National Convention in Dallas, Texas. Charles appeared at least a couple of times performing. He sang “God Bless America” at one point, and during the week of the convention, NBC-TV also did a special focus piece, with interview, on his music and career. At the convention, Charles also appeared arm-in-arm with the President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan on August 23rd after Reagan had made his acceptance speech. But the high point of Charles’ involvement at the 1984 conven- tion came on August 23rd when he sang “America the Beautiful” to close convention in a rousing, emotional finale that was seen by millions on television. The high point of Charles’ involvement at the 1984 convention came on Aug. 23rd when he sang “America the Beautiful” to close convention in a rousing, emotional finale seen by millions on TV.An extensive NBC clip of that performance, introduced by NBC anchorman at the time, Tom Brokaw, shows delegates in the audience waving flags and placards. During the segment, there are camera shots of President and Nancy Reagan and Vice President Bush and wife Barbara, on stage admiring Charles’ performance, and occasionally singing along as he played his piano. As Charles sings his song, the camera cuts back-and-forth between Charles, the president’s party on stage, and delegates in the audience, with close-up shots of various people in the audience – of groups of convention attendees swaying back and forth, of a man in a cowboy hat waving an American flag, of the President’s daughter Maureen Reagan, and others. At the end of the performance, President Reagan and Vice President Bush shake hands with Charles. After his convention appearance in 1984 convention, Charles also played at Reagan’s Inaugural Ball in January 1985, and would visit Reagan a couple of times that year at the White House related to work involving the Red Cross and/or disability issues. In 1986, the Reagans attended a Kennedy Center national awards ceremony which featured Charles as one of the honored artists that year. Meanwhile, at the Democrat’s National Convention in 1988, a Jesse Jackson video concluded with the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful.”
Ray Charles shown on CD cover for 2005 album featuring “America the Beautiful” and other songs for Madacy Records.
Regardless of politics, the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” has grown on people over the years, with many finding it especially moving. On the web, for example, one blogger writes: “Hearing his rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’ never fails to move me to tears.” That kind of comment is not unusual. In fact, some regard the Charles version as the singular version, and in class all its own.
Ed Bradley, the late 60 Minutes correspondent, called it “the definitive version…an American anthem – a classic, just as the man who sang it.” Others have suggested that Congress should “retire” the song in Charles’ honor. Another writes that Charles’ performance of the song “is an awesome, noteworthy, modern, musical achievement” for which Charles should be “forever honored.”
Still others have gone somewhat deeper into how Charles sings the song – namely how he would often lead his performance with the less-well known second verse:
O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine
Cover of CD for 2002 album, “Ray Charles Sings For America,” Rhino/Wea.
According to some accounts, the poem’s original author, Katherine Bates, was making some pointed critique in this verse of the materialistic and self-serving robber barons of the 1890s, and was urging America to live up to its more nobler self and ideals. She was also honoring the memory of those who died for their country. Charles too, in his selection of the second verse as lead, is making this emphasis as well and more, as Newark Star-Ledger columnist Charles Taylor explains in a 2004 article for Salon.com:
“…Think about what that reordering does, what it means to hear those words before the familiar ‘O beautiful, for spacious skies…’ Beginning with images of sacrifice and death, then moving on to a prayer that asks — with no guarantee of being answered — that those sacrifices not be in vain, Ray Charles implies that America must earn the verse that follows.”
In his performances, Charles would often get to the first verse of the poem somewhat later, explaining to his audience as he went: “…And you know when I was in school we used to sing it something like this…,” then singing the familiar verse.Charles’ version of the song “teaches… a new humility.” – C. Taylor, Salon.com. Charles Taylor, in Salon.com, continues making his point:
“…So the purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plains are introduced as a legend we hear as children. They are not, in this [Ray Charles] version, God’s bounty there for our taking, but the reward of a collective dream, a dream all the sweeter, all the more worth working toward because it will never fully be realized. God may or may not reward that striving, but as Charles sings it, the striving is where the concrete beauty of the country lies.”
“‘America the Beautiful’ is the least boastful of patriotic songs, and even so, Ray Charles’ version teaches it a new humility. ….”
“America The Beautiful” poster showing the fourth and final verse of the song.
Charles’ performance of the song struck a special resonance with many across America after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. One observer commenting at SongFacts.com– “Jay from New York city” – explains his reaction upon hearing the song shortly after 9/11:
“On September 13, 2001, the radio station I listened to went back to playing music after nearly two days of news reports. This was the first song I heard that morning after getting into my car, and it almost moved me to tears. Charles begins with what is traditionally the third verse: ‘Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.’ Given the events of two days earlier, it was incredibly powerful and almost eerily poignant. I have only rarely heard this song — it is not the type of song that is typically played on the radio — but I feel that Charles’ rendition is the definitive version of the song, and it provided for me a musical memory I will never forget.”
“Music really and truly is my bloodstream you know — my breathing, my respi- ratory system. And as long as the public is willing to listen to me, there ain’t no retiring until the day when they put me away.” -Ray Charles
In Sept 2002, Charles produced another “American songs” album — Ray Charles Sings For America, by Rhino records. This compilation, coming a year after the terrorist attacks, was a collection of American tribute songs with a few new tracks from Charles, including a spoken version, “Ray Reflects On America” and “God Bless America Again.” The collection also includes “America The Beautiful.” The following spring, on Friday, April 11, 2003, Charles sang “America The Beautiful” at Fenway Park in Boston at the Red Sox opening day baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, though the game was later rained out.
In Ray Charles’ birthplace of Albany, Georgia, a revolving, illuminated, bronze statue of Charles seated at a baby grand piano (by sculptor Andy Davis) is the centerpiece of the Ray Charles plaza and park.
Also in 2003, at what may have been his final performance in public, Charles sang “Georgia On My Mind” and “America the Beautiful” at a televised gathering of journalists in Washington, D.C.In 2004, New York Times writer Bob Herbert, describing Ray Charles’ style and impact as part religious, wrote: “Listen to the way he transforms ‘America the Beautiful’ from an anthem to a hymn…” Ray Charles, at age 73, passed on in 2004. However, he leaves behind a giant musical legacy for the ages, of which “America the Beautiful” is just one part; an important and enduring interpretation that will continue to move people for many years to come.
In May 2011, an upbeat and energetic Google TV ad starring pop music phenom Lady Gaga began running on mainstream TV channels, drawing lots of attention and praise. In the ad, Gaga and her fans are featured in what is essentially a 90-second music video that uses her upbeat song, “The Edge of Glory,” as its soundtrack. But the ad, which is quite well done, also provides a window on the technology powerhouse that is Google and how that company is changing — both in terms of its public image and how it may use its powers in the future. More on that part of the story a bit later. First, the video, and following that, a more detailed look at the ad, isolating some of its screenshots below to provide a somewhat “slower” look at its elements and composition.
The Google Ad
Lady Gaga jogging on the Brooklyn Bridge, Google ad.
Google’s logo for its “Chrome” internet browser.
Lady Gaga attending to decorative details.
This fan-submitted video on YouTube titled “want to be a monster,” appears in the Gaga-Google ad.
Shots of Lady Gaga on the Brooklyn Bridge are interspersed with fan videos in Google’s Chrome ad.
Another fan-submitted YouTube video covering Gaga’s song in the Google Chrome TV ad.
Lady Gaga sends internet messages in Google TV ad.
Lady Gaga fan in the Google ad singing to his dog.
Shot of search query for “gaga fans” in Google ad.
Lady Gaga dancing with others in Google ad.
Lady Gaga appears to be scrolling on hand-held device in this screenshot from Google’s Chrome ad.
Lady Gaga sends encouragement to her fans.
Lady Gaga in her own “paws up” pose.
Gaga continues her workout on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Gaga and black guy dancing in Google ad.
Gaga message: "Unleash your inner monster!"
Gaga in pensive moment in Google Chrome ad.
Guy in Google ad showing off Gaga-like costume.
Handicapped guitarist playing Gaga cover song.
Lady Gaga in closing frames of Google ad.
In the final frames of the ad, clicking on the Chrome icon yields a display of other Google icons, each representing other web possibilities.
Ostensibly, this TV commercial — which was also posted as a YouTube video – is an advertisement for Google’s “Chrome” internet browser. For those who may not know, a browser is a piece of software that enables internet users to do many wondrous and varied things on the web, from viewing websites to sharing videos and more. Other companies — Google competitors — also offer browsers, such as Microsoft’s “Explorer” or Mozilla’s “Firefox.” Interestingly, however, in market research Google discovered that many people had no idea of what a browser was, nor did they realize they had a choice of browsers and could download a different browser than those pre-loaded on phones, laptops and PCs.
Google’s Lady Gaga ad, however, is more than just a marketing pitch for the Chrome browser; it’s actually more like a celebration of the internet and its many powerful possibilities, casting Google and its tools in a very positive light. Not least, of course, is that Google also wins the implied endorsement of Lady Gaga — and as Google is hoping, millions of her fans as well. Google also gets a share of brand-name affirmation here. But the ad, in any case, is quite entertaining and captivating, even for those who see it by accident – and even for those not knowing a thing about Google, Chrome, Lady Gaga, browsers, or the internet.
Lady Gaga, of course, is the star of this commercial and, in a showcase of web interactivity, so are her fans, whom she affectionately calls “Little Monsters.”
The ad opens with a shot of Google’s Chrome logo, and then moves to a frame showing a message from Lady Gaga being typed into the Chrome browser with the title, “listen up, little monsters!” The scene then cuts to Lady Gaga jogging on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan in the background. Gaga is attired in a black leather bra and shorts with black hoodie, looking a bit like a female version of Rocky Balboa. The camera cuts back and forth between Gaga’s workout on the bridge and her fans’ videos several times during the ad.
For some viewers, and even her ardent fans, Lady Gaga has not often been seen apart from her stage acts or other highly-managed public appearances where she is typically dressed in some exotic new costume and engaged in an extravagant music production. And non-fans may only know her from magazine covers or TV appearances. So to see the pop star cast as an average person jogging in the real world may provide a new perspective.
Back in the video, Gaga is shown in one frame with two assistants in a dressing area as the scene cuts quickly through a series of fan-generated YouTube videos – a guy doing “monster”-like facial makeup; a female fan with guitar singing the Gaga tune; a black guy in a stairwell singing; a couple of kids dancing in their bedroom, and more. A fan in a white wig appears next doing an acoustic ukulele cover of Gaga’s song, followed by other imitators, prompting a Gaga typed-in message, “You are ALL beautiful.”
Then come more dance scenes from fans on YouTube – a couple of kids in their bedroom, a guy in his kitchen, a middle-age lady outside her home, and a fan holding up a Gaga’s CD, Born This Way. A Gaga query on YouTube follows, yielding more video clips, including one guy who looks to be in his 30s singing the Gaga tune to a little black dog he is holding. Gaga clicks on several more choices to view them, then types, “You’re all superstars. You inspire me!”
More frames whiz by; one with a girl dancing with abandon as her father scoots by to one side, not sure of what he’s seeing. Then comes a quick shot of Gaga and a black guy dancing, then Gaga alone, boxer style, jumping side-to-side with feet together, all in sync with the music.
A few frames later Gaga appears to be sitting alone or riding in car viewing a hand-held device of some kind, presumably surfing the web or reading her mail. Then comes the message, “PAWS UP!,” followed by fans showing their best “claw pose,” then Gaga doing the same in a deadpan pose.
Back on the Brooklyn Bridge briefly, Gaga is seen doing some footwork, Manhattan behind her in a bright blue-sky day as the music beats away. More fan videos follow – among them, the “Lady Gaga Dance Squad” in a mirrored studio, followed by a young guy on a rooftop smiling and making his best Gaga-like dance moves; then cut to Gaga again, in her hoodie, dancing side-by-side with a black guy. Another typed message to fans: “Unleash your inner monster!”
Then come more YouTube videos of dancing Gaga fans, including one couple who appear to be performing on an inside window sill with some abandon; a guy alone in a hallway shaking his butt in sync with the music; Gaga back on the bridge putting down a few wild steps; then another Gaga message – “this is our moment” – followed by Gaga in a quiet, pensive cool-down moment back on the bridge looking out over the city.
More scenes follow of Gaga’s dancing inter-cut with fan videos, including a guy twirling around with a giant floral decoration on his shoulder, and another of a handicapped young man performing a Gaga song on an electric guitar with a prosthetic aid. Then cut to Gaga in a salmon-beige-colored dress who appears to be performing somewhere, followed by a YouTube fan video from a teenage boy titled, “Gaga Wear” — i.e, Gaga-inspired “clothing” he made — part of which appears to be a cork-type facial decoration this kid wears across his eyes, along with a wavy red-ribbon material as a shirt.
Then back to Gaga on the Brooklyn Bridge, dance-running and skipping, followed by a scene of about 30 young elementary school kids in a studio room dancing and jumping to the song and then a shot of a teenage girl in a YouTube video twirling around in her bedroom alone amid falling confetti.
A screenshot of Gaga’s sign-off message appears: “Stay Strong Little Monsters!” Close-up shots of Gaga back on the bridge follow, her face filing the screen, one of her throwing a kiss to fans Dinah-Shore style, and another, smiling.
A final sequence of frames then appears, one with the words, “Lady Gaga, Mother Monster,” followed by another that reads, “The web is what you make of it.” Then there’s a click sound as the cursor hits the Chrome logo, sending out a little explosion of other Google icons in a concentric array around the Chrome icon, each representing other Google tools and/or web possibilities.
The 90 seconds in this ad race by quickly, but on the whole the ad leaves the viewer feeling pretty buoyant and upbeat, if only for the music and the energy of all those dancing fans.
The Google ad, however, has multiple purposes, the most important of which is to show Google products as web enablers – whether search, e-mail, video posting, blogging, and more. Each frame has Gaga or her fans making use of a Google product, whether it’s the Chrome browser, Google search, G-mail, or YouTube. Gaga is shown as an artist who relies on the web and how she uses it to communicate directly with her fans around the world, building one of the world largest fan bases in the process. As Google itself has explained of this ad:
“This film celebrates Lady Gaga’s special and unmediated relationship with her fans, the Little Monsters. The making of this film is a demonstration of the power of the web in its own right. The entire project, beginning with Lady Gaga’s shoot in NYC on May 8th , to shipping materials to the television networks for air, took 10 days. Within hours of the release of her new single “Edge of Glory” on May 9th, fans began uploading videos on YouTube, making the song their own by dancing to it, singing it and playing it on all kinds of instruments. Lady Gaga then posted a message on her website asking for more videos to be used in the film project. Fans responded within minutes and uploaded hundreds more videos. Back in the editing room, in real time as fan videos streamed in, editors were putting them into the film. The film was completed on May 18th in time to air during Lady Gaga’s performance on the season finale of Saturday Night Live, and to also live on the web.”
Gaga’s guest appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live that evening helped pull in millions of viewers who also saw the Google ad premiere. With Justin Timberlake hosting and Lady Gaga as the musical guest, SNL garnered its highest ratings for a season finale in seven years. Nielsen reported that the show averaged a 7.0 rating in major local markets — meaning about 7 percent of homes with televisions watched the episode — up from a 5.8 rating for the same episode the previous year. And Lady Gaga did her part that night as well, alerting her followers via Twitter that there was something special coming that night beyond the show: “To everyone watching TimberGagaSNL tonight, I have a GLORIOUS surprise! Watch the commercial breaks little monsters. This is our moment!” The next night, Sunday May 22nd, the Google ad with Lady Gaga was seen by millions more, as it ran during the 2011 Billboard Music Awards, broadcast live on the ABC television network.
For those not experienced with the web there is a quite a lot going on in this ad that will be missed or not fully understood. But Google is primarily targeting young people with the ad, and specifically the “Lady Gaga market” – i.e, her 10 million-plus loyal fan base. Still, given the quality of this ad, gains beyond the Gaga market have already arrived and more will come. As of October 2010, for example, the YouTube posting of this ad on Google’s Chrome page has received a steadily rising share of visitors, with more than 4.2 million pageviews.
The net effect of the ad appears to be more emotional and impressionistic than it is hard-core marketing – and for Google, that is not a bad thing. All in all, strung together as it is, the ad offers a kind of celebration of human potential. A positive feeling seeps out of it; even dare say a bit of viewer pride on behalf of those portrayed, as each of the clips shows someone with an inspired bit of spontaneity, or otherwise letting loose with their inner creative selves in some form, be that through dance, art or music. And all of that expression is given voice by way of the web and web tools like Google Chrome. Of course, that’s what good advertising is supposed to do: make us feel something with creative arrangements of sight and sound. Still, kudos to Google and their team for this ad and the others in this series, which is further explored below.
The Lady Gaga ad, however, is one of a series of ads Google has used since May 2011 to promote its Chrome browser. These ads, like the Gaga ad, are also part statement on Google the brand and part statement on the technology’s potential – even if not the intention. And for Google, this series of ads also took the company into new territory, as they began presenting the company with a much more human face.
Google, it must be remembered, is a geek-born entity and proud of it – no knock there, as their engineering focus has certainly changed the world for the better. Secondly, Google is primarily about selling advertising, not using it. For most of the company’s short existence – founded in 1998 – it had not really seen the need to do major mainstream advertising about itself or its wares. Google grew to fame by that old tried-and-true method, word of mouth. What little advertising the company did was mostly on-line, and not well known beyond that, and certainly not on prime-time television.
Then in early 2010, for the Super Bowl, Google ventured into the more mainline advertising arena with “Parisian Love,” an ad that tells the story of an American exchange student falling in love with a woman in Paris.
This “story,” however, is “told” entirely in 30 seconds using Google’s search page as the sole visual, with a series of typed-in search queries as storyline – e.g., “how to impress a French woman,” “what are Truffles?” “Churches in Paris,” and finally, sometime after the honeymoon, “how to assemble a crib.” The final screenshot says simply: “search on.”
This Google ad uses a spare piano score as background and makes its point about the power and possibilities of search in modern life, but also importantly includes the human element in its storyline. Google’s “Parisian Love” Superbowl ad of 2010 told a love story in 30 seconds using only Google’s search page and a series of typed-in queries as the storyline. It was really Google’s first foray into more mainstream TV advertising, and the forerunner of the ads it launched in May of 2011, including the Lady Gaga Chrome ad.
Google appears to have become more involved with mainstream advertising around 2007 when it hired former Ogilvy advertising executive Andy Berndt to build a new creative unit internally. A year later, the company added Robert Wong, formerly an Arnold advertising director who had also worked at Starbucks. Today, Google’s Creative Lab is a 50-person shop – powered in part by younger creatives whom Google has recruited and is schooling as it goes – that works closely with Google marketing and outside ad agencies such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty ( who worked on the Gaga ad), Cutwater, and Johannes Leonardo, among others. Robert Wong, creative director of the Lab, has stated that among the Lab’s main tasks are: to “remind the world what it is that they love about Google;” to communicate the company’s innovations, intentions and ideals; and to “manage and steward” the brand.
Screenshot from "Dear Sophie" Google Chrome ad.
Google’s first round of Chrome ads — which come across more like “internet potential” ads than browser ads — appeared with two spots in early May 2011. And most importantly, these ads, like the Lady Gaga ad, with their emotional content, also cast the company in a more human light. The first of these, “Dear Sophie,” features a father creating a scrapbook for his far-too-cute Asian baby daughter as she grows up, principally using Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, sending her notes, photos and videos as she grows, also employing Google tools such as Picasa and YouTube to upload and store her photos. This video/ad, which is based on a true story, has the father creating a Gmail login for his daughter, composing messages for her which appear on screen for the viewer to read during the ad, some of which are quite touching. The viewer also sees a series of Sophie birthday photos, Sophie in ballet class, Sophie losing teeth, etc. as Dad writes his tender notes to her. “Kudos to Google for having us reaching for the tissues at 13 seconds in,” wrote one reviewer.
Journalist Dan Savage appeared in a May 2011 Google TV ad about the “It Gets Better Project."
The second Google Chrome ad, titled “It Gets Better,” also began appearing on mainstream TV in May 2011. It features Dan Savage, a journalist who writes a syndicated column and does radio commentary offering advice on human relationships and sex. Savage made an inspiring YouTube video about gay bullying, telling gay teens who were being bullied that, in fact, it does get better and they are not alone. He also founded the “It Gets Better Project” in September 2010, and with that project, encouraged others from all walks of life to make their own YouTube videos encouraging and supporting gay teens. Google’s TV ad tells that story, showing how the “It Gets Better Project” website soon had more than 10,000 user-created videos, some quite moving, such as that from “Gay Cop, Gay Vet” saying, “you are perfect and wonderful just the way you are.” Google’s TV ad includes snippets from some of those videos, and in the process, also shows how easy it is to use the Chrome browser and other Google tools to create, upload, and share videos. But like the Sophie and Gaga ads, it is the human dimension in this Google ad that carries the day and leaves the more powerful message.
Gaga decided that she wanted to be involved with the company that was making “It-Gets-Better” kinds of statements.
The ads first aired during the TV shows “One Tree Hill” and “Glee” in early May 2011 on a Tuesday evening. Wrote reviewer Jennifer Bergen from Geek.com: “After watching two commercials from Google advertising its Chrome browser, I’m pretty choked up, and I kind of want to give someone a hug.”
Lady Gaga, in fact, decided to do her Google Chrome ad after she had seen “It Gets Better.” The Google ad team met her backstage after a concert to show her some samples of what they were doing, and according to her manager, Troy Carter, “It Gets Better” had an emotional impact on Gaga. She decided then she wanted to be involved with the company that was making those kinds of statements. And so they teamed up for the ad, which Gaga did for free; that is, Google did not pay her. But Gaga is obviously reaping benefit from the ad, reaching beyond her normal fan base and getting more publicity and exposure in a broader arena. Google’s Creative Lab developed the ad campaign along with ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH).
Teen idol Justin Bieber also appeared in a Google TV ad.
In addition to the Gaga ad, Google also involved another entertainer in its ad series, teen idol Justin Bieber. The Bieber ad shows how YouTube postings were used when Bieber was very young to help him gain exposure and subsequent success. The ad also displays how the internet is a continuing asset to Bieber’s career.
Ads like those for Bieber and Gaga are potentially “two-fers” for Google – i.e., gaining ground with a target audience, whether Gaga or Bieber fans, the gay/lesbian community, or some other specific audience. And they also reach a more general mainstream TV audience. Some of the ads also remain on line at YouTube and are often shared and embedded on numerous websites where they continue to be viewed as well.
Google has since made other similar TV ads — one showcasing a young couple in the restaurant business and another using the popular “angry birds” video game as a hook. Yet clearly, Google’s messages using more human themes and emotional content have received popular notice and have taken the company to a new level of public appreciation, consistent in one sense with its guiding moto of “don’t do evil.”
“The Edge of Glory” Lady Gaga: May 2011
In a May 2011 interview with New York Times writer Jon Pareles, Lady Gaga was asked about her song, “The Edge of Glory,” which is used, in part, in the Google Chrome ad. The exchange between them went as follows:
Q: Can you tell me more about “The Edge of Glory”?
A: I wrote that song about my grandpa when he passed away, and it means a lot to me. And Clarence Clemons played saxophone, and I listened to him growing up so it represents my youth. The song was about how when my grandma was standing over my grandfather while he was dying, there was this moment where I felt like he had sort of looked at her and reckoned that he had won in life. Like, I’m a champion. We won. Our love made us a winner. They were married 60 years. And then we left and he died. And I thought about that idea, that the glorious moment of your life is when you decide that it’s O.K. to go, you don’t have any more words to say, more business, more mountains to climb. You’re on the cliff, you tip your hat to yourself and you go. That’s what it was for me in that moment when I witnessed it.
And then, as I began to write the song, I thought about, you know, living on the edge of your life in a way that when you reach that moment it is glorious. The lyric is it’s hot to feel the rush, to brush the dangerous, being unafraid to fall deeply in love, being unafraid to go out all the way to the brink of your imagination.
Q: It has a long, long coda.
A: The coda is full-out. It’s so sexy, and it’s like the sax is singing for me, I don’t need to sing, I just need to throw on an emerald green dress and twirl around on a street corner.
Gaga Ad a Hit
Lady Gaga’s TV ad for Google meanwhile — now on You Tube at four-million plus visitors and climbing — has obviously struck a chord with many of her fans. But it has also reached beyond her fan base, provoking some thoughtful commentary in a few places. For example, author Grant McCracken writing in his blog at the Harvard Business Review observes:
…In part, the Chrome ad is a message from Lady Gaga to her fans… [It ] is an explicit call to arms, asking fans to embrace their otherness, their eccentricity, their most exuberant, expressive selves.
…Kids dancing like maniacs in the kitchen. People find their way out of conventional selves into more vivid ones. Life as a reckless pursuit of the sublime. That is what America is for. Or to use the more solemn language of Daniel Bell, the great American sociologist, this is our expressive individualism, the right of every American to be whoever they want to be. This is one of the faces of American liberty…
…I know some readers believe that Lady Gaga is bad news. I was giving a talk to a roomful of [business] managers about contemporary culture the other day, and someone asked darkly what I thought of the “dissoluteness.” I got what he was saying. If you are a CFO for a large company, Lady Gaga’s videos and that Chrome ad looks like an affront to civic virtue and private decency. The gender bending, the embrace of the other, the extravagant makeup, it all looks like trouble, an end to civilization as we know it.
I understand the alarm… The good news, anthropologically speaking, is that there is no danger. Lady Gaga and her fans are “monsters” only in the sense that they depart from the soft rules of social life, the ones that govern self-expression. They are not threatening to break the hard rules of social life, to commit crimes against the person or the state. We may treat the liberty Lady Gaga urges on her fans as a “thing indifferent.” It does not remove people from goodness or decency. It does not put the body politic at risk. It does not signal immorality, or the collapse of public order…
Photo of Stefani Germanotta prior to her “Lady Gaga” stardom.
Lady Gaga, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta, began performing in the rock music scene of New York City’s Lower East Side around 2005. She rose to prominence in 2008 after her debut studio album, The Fame, achieved international popularity, rising to No. 1 in six countries, topping the Billboard Dance/Electronic albums chart, and also hitting to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Since then, she has rocketed to superstardom, and has sold an estimated 13 million albums and 51 million singles, making her one of the best-selling music artists worldwide. In the U. S., she is among the best-selling digital artists, with nearly 30 million digital singles sold so far. Her second studio album released in 2011, Born This Way, powered by three singles “Born This Way,” “Judas” and “The Edge of Glory,” has topped the charts in many countries. “Born This Way” became the fastest-selling iTunes song in history, selling one million copies in five days.
Flare magazine, 2009.
Gaga performing, 2009.
Roling Stone, 2010.
Vogue, March 2011.
Although she has developed her own singular style, artists said to have influenced her are dance-pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson and “glam rock” singers such as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Gaga has developed a penchant for controversial showmanship and sometimes over-the-top outfits. Yet, in the fashion world, she has become a welcomed player and something of an economic stimulus. With her rise to stardom she has appeared on the covers of numerous magazines, was named to Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010, and is listed among the highest-earning celebrities by Forbes, taking in some $90 million in 2010.
Life, however, wasn’t always so kind to Stefani Germanotta. In high school, according to a Rolling Stone interview, Gaga was teased mercilessly. “Being teased for being ugly, having a big nose, being annoying,” she explained… “‘Your laugh is funny, you’re weird, why do you always sing, why are you so into theater, why do you do your make-up like that?’ . . . I used to be called a slut, be called this, be called that, I didn’t even want to go to school sometimes.” Gaga today, has become a champion to kids being bullied or shunned, and her music, with songs like “Born This Way,” helps some kids get through those tough times.
May 2010: Lady Gaga on the cover of “The Time 100” with Ivory Coast soccer star Didier Drogba and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Lady Gaga’s public reception to date has been mixed, receiving scathing critiques from some writers such as Camille Paglia, who has called her a “manufactured personality.” Others see her as a necessary pop culture change agent. At least one U.S. college course is titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.” Among her heroes are the former Beatle John Lennon and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
In recent years, Lady Gaga has injected herself into the political arena, taking up issues such as, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay and lesbian rights generally, and teen bullying. In her political work on behalf of overturning the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy – which had prohibited gay and lesbian service members from serving openly because of their sexuality – she released three YouTube videos urging her fans to contact their Senators in an effort to overturn the policy. In September 2010, she also spoke at a Servicemembers Legal Defense Network rally in Portland, Maine.
Gaga has also contributed to the fight against HIV and AIDS. She teamed up with MAC Cosmetics to launch a line of lipstick under her Viva Glam Gaga line, the proceeds from which are donated to HIV and AIDS prevention worldwide – and according to Forbes magazine, $202 million so far from lipstick and lipgloss. Gaga has also become quite involved with her music business and related internet technologies.
“Gaga @Google” March 2011
Lady Gaga visit at Google, headquarters, March 2011.
Lady Gaga and Google had hooked up prior to her May 2011 involvement with the Chrome ad. In March 2011, Google hosted a live Lady Gaga visit at the “GooglePlex,”as the company’s Mountain View, California headquarters is sometimes called. This session was one in a long line of talk show-like programs that Google has sponsored in recent years, bringing in celebrities, politicians, authors and others. Each of these sessions is filmed, posted online, and archived for YouTube. The Gaga event, billed as “Google Goes Gaga,” was part of the company’s “Musicians@Google”series. Gaga made the visit just before a scheduled performance in Oakland for her Monster Ball tour. She was also there, in part, to promote her album, Born This Way.
Lady Gaga at “Googleplex” session in Mountain View, CA, with Google V.P. Marissa Mayer, March 2011.
Before Lady Gaga actually sat down to talk with Google’s Marissa Mayer, V.P. of consumer products, Gaga was introduced by a short video on a large screen in the room. The 30-second video showed various Google tools at work on Lady Gaga’s rising career: charting the rising surge of Gaga search queries, her followers, a sampling of fan-inspired YouTube videos, and a Google translations program working on Gaga lyrics in various languages. That video, or something like it, could also serve as a stand-alone Google ad.
Sitting with Mayer on stage, the pop star talked about a range of subjects including being bullied as a kid, her vocal training, dealing with the paparazzi, and being a woman working in the pop music business. She also mentioned the millions of fan and search hits she gets on Google, and the millions of views her videos get on YouTube.
Lady Gaga with Google co-founder Larry Page, a photo she uploaded to the web the day of her visit in March 2011.
During the Google session, Gaga also took questions from Google employees, some of whom dressed up in Gaga-like costumes for the event. Mayer also fielded questions for her via Twitter and Google Moderator during the session. Gaga had earlier asked fans to submit questions through Twitter and YouTube. More than 54,000 video questions were submitted and more than 220,000 YouTube users voted on which questions should be used in the Google session.
At Google that day, Gaga also met briefly with Google co-founder Larry Page, whom she calls “Larry Google.” After her visit, she sent a Twitter message to her followers, also posting a photo of her and Page taken that day. “Just left Google,” she tweeted, “what a genius team.”
Stay tuned; the Google-Gaga relationship may be just getting started.
Google’s advertising and networking, especially around entertainment superstars like Lady Gaga, also highlights a new kind of business and communications model that appears to be taking form, not only with possibilities at Google, but throughout the technology-entertainment community. Simple advertising campaigns, as the Gaga TV ad and others like it now show, can very quickly generate and build a connection to millions of fans – fans who are responsive to related messages and possibly much more.
Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” album helped set a digital sales record at Amazon.com, where fan response to a promotional special crashed the company's servers.
Lady Gaga, for example, is huge in social media – approaching 35 million followers on Facebook, and more than 10 million on Twitter. On YouTube, her videos have received more than 1 billion views. And others on the web have seen first-hand the power of Gaga’s fan base. On May 23, 2011, Amazon .com, in a heavily-publicized move to promote its music service, offered digital copies of Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way for 99 cents. Gaga’s fan base went “gaga” over the deal and crashed Amazon’s servers on the first day of sales. Gaga would proceed to sell 1.1 million copies of the album in the U.S. during its debut week, the most for any artist since 2005. Lady Gaga is also no stranger to endorsement deals, some of which will live on the web, such as her deal with internet game company Zynga to add a “GagaVille” to that company’s wildly popular FarmVille social game. She also has involvements with Polaroid and Starbucks, is a Best Buy Mobile partner, a sponsor for Monster energy drink, and has her own Beats-branded headphones, a perfume line, and more. She has also had various promotional or other deals with iTunes, HBO, Livestream, VEVO, and Amazon Cloud Player. Going forward, new kinds of celebrity and entertain- ment networks–and really quite valuable business hubs as well–appear to be distinct possibilities. Gaga’s team of managers and marketers are among the best and most web-savvy in the business, and understand the importance of integrating social and traditional media and keeping current with their fan base
Gaga and her managers have also been investigating other high-tech possibilities – and related business opportunities – for better ways to manage their powerful fan base. In 2010, after Apple began a music-based social network called Ping, Steve Jobs arranged for a meeting with Lady Gaga and her business manager, Troy Carter. Reports on that meeting, held at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, indicate that Lady Gaga quizzed Jobs about Ping’s design, and both she and Carter expressed concerns about the lack of Ping’s integration with other social networks like Facebook. Carter, in fact, came away thinking about a new kind of platform for entertainers that could help them manage their fan base across all major social networks. That idea has since become a new start-up company called Backplane, which will help to build platforms and communities of interests on the web around specific interests, such as those for musicians and sports teams – platforms that will work with Facebook, Twitter, and other such sites.
Carter, 38, has been Gaga’s manager for four years, and he knows first-hand how the internet has helped Gaga’s fan base grow. “There was a time when radio stations wouldn’t play Gaga’s music, because it was considered dance,” he explained in a June 2011 New York Times interview. “Outside of live performances, the internet became our primary tool to help people discover her music.” Carter’s new venture, meanwhile, Backplane, has raised more than $1 million from a group of investors led by Tomorrow Ventures, the investment firm of Google’s chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. Lady Gaga is also a major shareholder in Backplane with a 20 percent stake. Google, from its perch at the center of search and information technology, will have powerful new opportunities in social networking, advertising, film production, and entertainment. Observes Gary Briggs, a vice president at Google, who worked with Lady Gaga’s team on the Chrome TV commercial: “Troy and Gaga are doing things with communications and fan relationships that we haven’t really seen before.”
Google, meanwhile, has already begun to create special features with some of its web tools. In May 2011 it launched a music chart for videos called the YouTube 100 that charts song popularity in user-generated and professional music videos. Google is also building its own social networking site, known as “Google+,” which opened to the general public in late September 2011 and has surpassed 50 million users since then. Still, it has a ways to go to catch Facebook at 750 million users. However, Google has noticed that celebrities like Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher helped Twitter reach stratospheric numbers of new members. After Kutcher’s high-profile usage and large number of followers made news — he soared to 1 million followers very quickly — Twitter received lots of press and new users. Google+ has already announced it will verify celebrity pages on its new site so celebrities will be confident of their identities, a policy that will also help to thwart the rise of imposter pages. Lady Gaga, and/or other high-profile luminaries may well be in line to help Google boost enrollment at its new Google+ site. Going forward, whether at Google or elsewhere, new kinds of celebrity and entertainment networks – and really quite valuable business hubs as well – appear to be distinct possibilities.
In any case, the old media-entertainment complex is changing pretty dramatically these days, with internet technology increasingly paramount. And Google it seems, from its perch at the center of search and information technology, will have powerful new opportunities in advertising, social networking, film production, and entertainment.
Additional stories at this website on the history of media, celebrity, and advertising are listed at those category pages, with others found in the Archive or on the Home Page. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle.
Note: This video shows a March 1989 TV ad for Pepsi entitled “Make a Wish,”
featuring pop music star Madonna singing & dancing. This ad was subsequently
pulled after it generated controversy. See more on this story at link below.
Ad story: This Pepsi ad uses a flash-back storyline opening with Madonna
seated in a parlor watching an old black-and-white home movie of herself as
a young girl at a birthday party. The spot cuts back and forth between the
young Madonna and adult versions in sync with the music set to various dance
scenes — to the young girl in school, to more dancing in a street scene, back to
the girl a little older, another with Madonna dancing among joyful gospel singers,
and then finally to Madonna in the opening parlor scene watching the home
movie seated with a can of Pepsi. There she watches the 8 year-old Madonna
in the black-and-white film at her party, holding a 1950s Pepsi bottle and straw,
about to blow out the candles on her cake. Across the ages, the two Madonnas
toast each other with their respective Pepsis. Then Madonna says to the birth-
day girl, “Go ahead, make a wish.” With that, the little girl blows out the candles
and the film ends. Cut to Pepsi logo and slogan, “A Generation Ahead.”
Note: This 30-second Dennis Hopper TV ad, and the one below,
are two of several he made in 2006-2008 for the Ameriprise
Financial Corp., in which the film star pitches financial planning
to Baby Boomers. Both of these ads use the hard-driving rock ‘n
roll tune, “Gimme Some Lovin” from the 1960s’ Spencer Davis
Group, as background music.
One of GE’s ‘model miners’ featured in its 2005 TV ad touting the company’s ‘clean coal’ technology.
In 2005, General Electric, the giant American conglomerate began an advertising campaign to tout its new-found concern for the environment and global warming. The advertising series, and its affiliated campaign, were part of a company-wide, GE initiative then titled “Ecomagination” — GE’s word for environmental innovation. The company had allocated some $90 million to launch the campaign, of which the TV ads were part.
One of the first ads to be featured used a coal mining theme and was titled “Model Miners.” The music backing the ad was from the 1950s hit song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. GE used the spot to push “clean coal,” a phrase which given coal’s carbon content, is regarded as something of an oxymoron by those concerned with global warming. Still, GE’s “Model Miners” TV ad was part of the company’s message that the nation could use its coal reserves in an environmentally friendly way to help solve its energy problem.
Scene from GE's coal mining ad.
Cue ‘Model Miners’
The ad opens at a coal mining site, with processing buildings in the background, as a group of male and female “model miners” descend a slight grade on their way into a coal mine. The camera then pans to various work scenes in the mine — the gals clad in tank tops and a few of the guys shirtless. All of the “model miners,” of course, have very good looking bodies and are sweating appropriately, yet not too much. At the ad’s opening and throughout its first scenes, Tennessee Ernie Ford sings his legendary “Sixteen Tons” tune in the background:
Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss said, “Well, bless my soul.”
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.
As the song fades off lightly into the background, the narrator delivers GE’s intended message:
“Imagine if a 250-year supply of energy were right here at home… Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day…..Another product of pure Eco-imagination. GE, imagination at work.”
As the narrator is making the pitch, the scene cuts to frame after frame of attractive workers flashing their muscles, the ladies in particular, wielding shovels and at least one with a jackhammer, most smiling and a few in near-flirting poses. The final screen shot, as the announcer finishes, shows the GE logo with “GE Imagination” printed below it, remaining on screen until close.
“The commercial we see,” offered Josh Ozersky in a July 2005 review of the ad in The New York Times, is visually indistinguishable from a Victoria’s Secret ad, right down to the blue filters and hubba-hubba slow motion.” Others thought the ad resembled a Madonna MTV video. In fact, at the unveiling of the “ecomagination” campaign in Washington D.C. where the TV ads were played and introduced at a VIP reception, CEO Jeffrey Immelt described the “Model Miners” ad as “a play on how to make coal sexy again.” Applauding heartily for the ad when it was played, according to one attendee, was James Connaughton, President Bush’s senior environmental advisor.
Scene from GE's coal mine ad.
No OSHA Regs
GE’s coal mine, of course, is a highly stylized, Hollywood coal mine. There are no OSHA regs here; no breathing masks required. And there’s plenty of room to stand up and strut one’s stuff. No low ceilings or cramped quarters. In fact, GE’s ad agency, BBDO, did not actually use a real coal mine to make the ad. Rather, they built a replica of the coal mining scenes on a soundstage to make the ad — at no small cost, to be sure. BBDO and GE would later win praise for their efforts. Some of the avant garde on Madison Avenue gave the piece high marks for its artistry, and BBDO won an award or two for the production. Yet others saw the piece as all wrong. “It strikes me as disingenuous to call for a massive resurgence in coal mining and then portray the job as a stylish sex party,” wrote Seth Stevenson of Slate magazine. Real miners, he said, still get black lung and still die in cave-ins.
'Model miners' at work in GE ad.
GE’s use of the song “Sixteen Tons” also brought objection, especially among those who cited the heritage of the song and what it was really saying about the brutish world of coal mining and company-ruled mining towns. True, the song was written about the struggles in the 1930s and 1940s, and things have improved since then. Still, as many who work in the mines today will point out, things are still far from peachy-keen in the coalfields.
BBDO’s Executive Creative Director Don Schneider told Slate’s Seth Stevenson that “Sixteen Tons” was used in the ad because it “instantly feels like a coal-mining song.” He also told Stevenson, “you can picture coal miners singing it without any negative feelings.” Really? Coal miners happily singing “another day older and deeper in debt”? Perhaps Mr. Schneider might have looked a bit deeper into the song’s history before he made that assertion. “Sixteen Tons” is certainly not “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go.” Merle Travis, the song’s author, had another world in mind when he penned the tune in the 1940s. (See “Sixteen Tons” for that background). “No one expects G.E. to preach a Marxist sermon,” wrote Josh Ozersky the New York Times, referring the deeper message in the song, “but the use of “Sixteen Tons” as a jokey soundtrack is an odd public relations move.”
More GE 'model miners'.
Jonathan Klein, a GE spokesman had explained the ad’s purpose to the New York Times. “In ‘Model Miners,'” he said, “the goal is to communicate that G.E.’s emission-reducing technology can make coal a more appealing energy source.” More appealing, that is, to GE’s coal and electric utility clients, perhaps. Building coal gasification facilities, coal-fired power plants, and sequestering carbon are all potentially huge capital goods businesses for GE. That may account for the company’s keen interest in projecting coal as a clean and happy “MTV generation” enterprise. BBDO and GE are not pitching coal miners or coal communities here, or even the general public necessarily. They’re message is really aimed at bigger corporate and government clients, saying in effect, “we can reduce your costs and increase your profits by reducing your future environmental liabilities, your pollution.” That’s not a bad thing, certainly, but running roughshod over coal mining’s labor heritage and short changing its dangers with misplaced imagery is.
Another GE 'model miner' from its TV ad.
It appears, however, that GE did get the message that its “Model Miners” ad was not striking the right chord with many of its viewers. TreeHugger.com, a Discovery Company website, reported that “GE was eventually pressured into dropping the ad campaign after it received numerous complaints from coal mining families.” Also, on January 2, 2006, the dangers of coal mining in the U.S. had become quite apparent once again, as the Sago Mine explosion in Sago, West Virginia became the dominant national news story, with days of continuous CNN and other coverage. Twelve miners died in the Sago mine tragedy. Not a good time, in any case, for “Model Miners” type advertising.
Group shot, 'model miners'.
Today, GE continues its Ecomagination campaign in various forms and venues, using television and print advertising, among other outlets. A sampling of some of these ads and other GE information on the project can be found at YouTube.com and the company’s website.
Additional stories at this website on coal-related topics include, for example, “Sixteen Tons, 1950s,” which explores the song history for the music used in the G.E. ad and some coal-related history, and also, “Paradise,” a story that uses a John Prine tune from 1971 as an introduction to explore coal strip mining history and a TVA coal-fired power plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky and the demise of the small town there named Paradise. See also at this website, the “Business & Society” page for more story choices in that category. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider making a supporting donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Actor Dennis Hopper shown in one of his Ameriprise Financial television advertisements.
It may be surprising for baby boomers to see Dennis Hopper pitching retirement planning for Ameriprise Financial Corp. He appeared in a series of TV ads for the company during 2006-2008. Hopper, it may be remembered, played the drug-addled cowboy biker, Billy, in the 1969 film classic Easy Rider. That’s the film he directed and starred in with Peter Fond and Jack Nicholson. In fact, the storyline in that film promised its two care-free bikers a “luxury retirement” via the big Mexican drug deal the two had just made — that is, until some redneck vigilantes brought Dennis and friends to an unpleasant ending.
Others might remember Dennis as the slightly maniacal photojournalist in the Vietnam-era Apocalypse Now of 1979, or the obscenity-spewing wildman Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet of 1986. And then there’s the mad bomber he played in 1994’s Speed with Kenau Reeves and Sandra Bullock, or the villain “Deacon” in Kevin Kostner’s Waterworld of 1995. Or how about the war criminal Victor Drazen in TV’s 24 series of recent years. Not exactly bright and cheery characters.
Biker Billy of 'Easy Rider,' a film about financial planning of a different kind.
True, these are all fictional roles and Hopper was acting. Nevertheless, this might not be the kind of imagery and character association that a financial services company wants floating around in the heads of its would-be customers.
“Of course, when you go with a celebrity,” explained Kim Sharan, Ameriprise’s chief marketing officer, “you have to be concerned. … [B]ut we did a significant amount of testing prior to going with Dennis. He tested really well.”
Although Hopper was pitching baby boomers when he made the Ameriprise ads, he himself was not a boomer. He was born in the 1930s, and was then over 70. But according to Doug Pippin, a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency then doing the Ameriprise ads, baby boomers saw Hopper as “an older brother who’s been out there.” At the time, Pippin called Hopper a “great anti-hero hero,” who stood for “unconventional thinking.”
Acting Since ’50s
Hopper, in fact, had a long and interesting career. He began acting as a teeanager in the 1950s and later signed with Warner Brothers. During the filming of Rebel Without a Cause — a 1955 film in which he had a small role — he became a friend to James Dean. He also appeared with Dean in Giant (1956), Dean’s last film before his death. By the late 1960s, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern to co-write the 1969 film Easy Rider, which he also directed while playing the role of Billy. That film received two Academy Award nominations — one for a then-unknown Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor and one for Hopper, Fonda, and Southern for Best Original Screenplay. The 1970s were a tough time for Hopper, dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.
In the 1980s, Hopper emerged in successful roles in Blue Velvet (1986) and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as an alcoholic father trying to help his son’s basketball team in Hoosiers (1986). In 1988 he directed the police vs. street gangs drama Colors with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Since then he has directed a few more films, including The Hot Spot (1990) and Chasers (1994). In the 1990s, he became known for playing bad guy roles in films such as Speed (1994). In recent years, he has acted in several TV films and also appeared in TV series such as 24 and E-Ring. Beyond his acting and directing, Hopper is also an accomplished photographer with his work shown publicly and published in several books (see selection below “sources”). He is also a modern art collector.
Hopper has appeared in advertising throughout his career, for Nike and other sponsors. But the work he is now doing for Ameriprise may become one of those classic pieces of advertising history, despite all the criticism of a bad fit. At the very least, the style of the ads is a welcomed change from the more staid approaches of the past. Here’s some history on how it came about.
New Kind of Ad
“Our new campaign is a radical departure from standard financial services advertising,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan at the launch of their ads in September 2006. “We are firmly focused on the positive aspects of retirement and our understanding that boomers aren’t going to spend this phase of life playing shuffleboard. There is no better figure to personify our message than legendary actor Dennis Hopper who embodies the spirit of the generation. With his help we are speaking with boomers not at them.”
Ameriprise — formerly a major division of American Express — became an independent company in August 2005 when it was spun off from American Express as a separate company. At the time, it was the sixth largest such roll out in corporate history. Today it is a stand-alone Fortune 500 company in its own right, ranked at #296 in May 2008, the fourth largest financial advisory firm in the U.S.
When Ameriprise became its own company, it needed to tell the world who it was and what it did, and so it began a “brand awareness” campaign. It also wanted to increase its business, add to the amount of assets under its management, and hold on to its advisor network. A marketing plan and advertising campaign were included. And that’s where Dennis Hopper comes in.
As Ameriprise began its new life as an independent, the financial services industry was in a major battle for the hearts, minds, and retirement money of the 78 million baby boomers now entering their 60s. At stake is more than $2 trillion in IRA and other assets that boomers now hold. Needless to say, companies like Fidelity, Merrill Lynch, and Ameriprise are, as one report put it, “salivating in anticipation” over this wealth. At stake is more than $2 trillion in IRA and other assets that boomers now hold. In the last few years, these and other firms have been spending some $700 million a year trying to capture boomer’s business. For Ameriprise, the question became how best to do that.
Ameriprise and its marketers began studying boomers. Using focus groups and other techniques, they met with boomers all across the country, taking their measure. They found a “work hard/play hard” cohort who were still rebels in a sense, and were not into passive retirement. Boomers are looking forward to the “next act” of their lives, but don’t want to be lectured about money and financial planning. From this, Ameriprise gleaned that “dreams” might be a good peg. Or as they put it: “We knew that we had to quell [boomers’] dread of financial planning and replace it with hope. We challenged our creative teams to take the focus off money and help boomers realize their dreams.”
Finding Their Man
In designing creative strategies, an “unexpected idea” of featuring Dennis Hopper in TV advertising arose. This came as part of the ad agency’s recommendation to use someone who was a leader or otherwise prominent in the 1960s counterculture. But the Hopper recommendation came as “a surprise” to the company. The only other celebrity used in financial services advertising at the time was Sam Waterston, who then played a righteous lawyer and prosecutor on the TV show, Law & Order. Ameriprise officials were not real comfortable with the prospect of using Hopper for their ads. Surely there must be other actors to consider, they suggested. “The Agency tried to think of some alternatives,” says one Ameriprise account of the process, “and that’s how we began to realize just how perfect and incomparable Dennis Hopper is.”Survey: “Baby Boomers saw Hopper as extremely talented, willing to chal- lenge himself, uncompro- mising, and just really cool.”
Still, Hopper was tested with audiences along with another unspecified alternative campaign. Here’s the report on what Ameriprise and their ad agency found:
“The two campaigns were taken to four markets for evaluation via one-on-one interviews. A consistent pattern of consumer response emerged. The concept featuring Dennis Hopper was clearly more appealing, in a big West Coast market as well as a smaller “Middle America” market. “Baby Boomers saw Hopper as extremely talented, willing to challenge himself, uncompromising, and just really cool. He is someone they look up to and aspire to emulate his values.”
“Meanwhile, we purchased syndicated celebrity research from E-Score (a more robust competitor to the well-known Q Score). The data reinforced what the qualitative research had demonstrated. Hopper had the combination of winning attributes that were consistent with Ameriprise’s desired brand personality: versatile, talented, experienced, intriguing, especially among our target audience.”
When they tested Dennis Hopper TV concepts, they also found a positive response. “When the Hopper spots tested above norm in quantitative testing, Ameriprise knew that Hopper was their guy.” All of the research, focus groups, and testing helped convince Ameriprise management that provocative ads featuring Dennis Hopper “could have significant positive impact on their business.” So the ads went forward, the first released in September 2006.
Hopper & ’60s Music
Hopper pitching Ameriprise.
In the ads, Dennis Hopper is aiming squarely at baby boomers and their retirement “dreams.” But he’s not exactly giving the soft sell. Rather, he is more cajoling, offering his message in a style befitting the 1960s’ way of doing things a little bit against the grain. In fact, he’s more like the “anti-retirement” messenger — at least in terms of what retirement used to be like. “No more rocking chairs or shuffleboard” — and Dennis says as much in one or more of these ads. Hopper is shown in an assortment of outdoor settings — on a sand dune, at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, in a suburban housing tract, on a beach with blue ocean background, and others.
The ads are emotionally powered by a 1960s’ song from Steve Winwood & the Spencer Davis Group, using a signature organ riff that is a guaranteed “boomer getter”.
Each of the Ameriprise ads features Hopper dressed in black with his symbolic red chair (the “anti-rocking chair”). But most important is the music, as each of the 30-second spots is emotionally powered by the same classic piece of 1960s’ music. The song used is by Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group, called “Gimme Some Lovin’ “(#7, 1967). It’s a landmark piece with a distinctive beat and signature organ riff that are immediately recognized by anyone who was even remotely paying attention in the 1960s. It also has guaranteed “kitchen-to-TV-room” drawing power for those who might have drifted away from their TV sets. The music almost has a “Pied Piper” effect on folks of that era. The tune plays prominently and at key moments in each of the ads as Dennis tells his viewers they “need a plan.” In fact, without the Spencer Davis song, these ads would be considerably less effective, as one You Tube clip without the music shows.
Curiously, at one point after the ads had run for a time, Ameriprise stopped using the Spencer Davis music with the ads and began using other music. A narrative sampling of four of the Ameriprise ads using the orginal Spencer Davis music, follows below. The videos with the newer music can be found at the Ameriprise web site.
Hopper in Ameriprise ad.
This ad opens with a close up of Dennis in the middle of big field of sunflowers, dressed in his black shirt, twirling a single flower in his hand as he talks directly to the viewer: “Some people say that dreams are like delicate little flowers. WRONG!” Cue Spencer Davis tune and pan out to wide view of whole field and Dennis tossing the flower into the air. “Dreams are powerful,” says Dennis, now in close-up mode talking with the viewer while using emphatic hand gestures. “Dreams are what make you say, ‘When I’m 64, I’m going to start a new business; I want to make my own movie’.” “Flower power was then, your dreams are now.” Then, with some finger pointing, he adds, “But powerful dreams need more than just a little weekend gardening.” Cut to beautiful Southwest desert scene with assorted tall cacti and attractive gray-haired lady taking in the beauty, then to scenes with husband and a financial planner sitting down going over some paperwork. Then cut to attractive adobe-like building in the desert — i.e., dream realized, home in the desert — as voiceover explains: “Start with your dreams, and your Ameriprise Financial advisor, through a unique approach called Dream, Plan, Track ( these words flash on screen, along with “Go To What’s Next” and “ameriprise.com”). We’ll work with you to help make your dreams realities.” Cut back to Dennis in the field of sunflowers, close up: “Flower power was then, your dreams are now.” Close: Ameriprise logo and lettering flash on screen with 1-800-Ameriprise phone number.
. . . in American Dreams ad.
In this ad, Dennis Hopper is shown with his red chair standing at an intersection in the middle of a suburban housing tract. “The American Dream,” he says, describing the conventional American community as the camera pans down the street, dog barking in the background. “White picket fence, 2.4 kids, and a nice puppy dog — NO!,” he then says emphatically, slightly laughing as he puts his hands to his head, waving off that idea. Cue the Spencer Davis tune, as Dennis sets us straight: “The American Dream is that each one of us gets our dreams — big dreams, small dreams, cra-a-a-zy dreams,” adding appropriate hand gestures to signify each kind of dream. “It’s not just where your dreams take you, it’s where you take your dreams.” “But here’s the thing,” he says, pausing for effect, then looking straight into the camera. “It’s not just where your dreams take you, it’s where you take your dreams.” Pan out to Hopper laughing as he walks away down the street. He disappears as the voiceover adds: “Find out why more people come to Ameriprise for financial planning than any other company.” Corporate lettering then appears on screen in the sky above the street scene — “The personal advisors of Ameriprise Financial,” along with a web page-like display of topical choices — “Financial Planning > Retirement > Investments > Insurance.” The add closes with the red chair remaining in the intersection and the voiceover continuing, “Visit us at ameriprise.com/plan.” On the final screen shot “ameriprise.com /plan” remains on screen.
Dennis Hopper in ad.
This 30-second spot, titled “Salt Flats,” opens with Dennis, dressed in black, on a large expanse of bright sandy white salt flats with mountains in the distance. The camera work alternates from close-up and far away. “‘Your dreams are crazy!,” he bellows in the first frame, close up, pointing his finger accusingly at the viewer. Cut to Dennis at a distance, standing, making large sweeping gestures with his arms, bellowing again, “They’re impossible”[i.e., your dreams]. Back to Dennis, more close up, standing, now in a more civil tone, cue Spencer Davis music: “That’s what they said back in the day when your dreams changed everything!,” he says, now removing his sunglasses and pointing with them in hand. “See, the thing about dreams is, they don’t retire.” “That’s not gonna stop now,” he says insistently of his viewer’s expected behavior. “You’re not gonna turn your dreams over to the authorities at age 60,” he continues, incredulously. “You find someone who believes in your dreams.” Cut to sequence of shots of Japanese American client who is presumably a hobbyist photographer consulting with his wife and an Ameriprise agent, with client shown thereafter continuing his photographic quests in various settings on a road trip. “Get To What’s Next” flashes on screen during this sequence as the voiceover makes the pitch: “Start with your dreams and your Ameriprise financial advisor working with you one on one, face to face. We’ll work with you to help make your dreams realities.” Back to Dennis at close: “See, the thing about dreams is,” he says putting his sunglasses back on, “they don’t retire.” Closing shot includes Ameriprise Financial information and 1-800-Ameriprise on screen.
Hopper in 'Stars' ad.
This ad opens to a nighttime setting in the desert, with a big starry sky. The first scene shows Dennis at some distance, standing, back to the camera, near a red chair, looking up at the sky. An owl is heard calling in the background. Camera pans the nighttime sky. Cut to Dennis close-up on his chair looking into the camera: “When you a were a kid, wishing upon a star was a cute idea. “Unless I’m completely in the dark here, you’re not a kid anymore.” But unless I’m completely in the dark here, you’re not a kid anymore.” Cue: Spencer Davis tune. “Though you still got dreams, don’t you? You gotta plan to get them up and runnin‘?,” he asks. “Or are you just keeping your fingers crossed?” A shooting star streaks across the sky, with laughter from Dennis. “Maybe it’s time for a wake up call, ” he says, with an encouraging facial nod. Voiceover: “Find out why more people come to Ameriprise than any other financial planning company. Visit us as Ameriprise.com/plan.”
Hopper with dictionary.
In addition to the four preceeding samples, there are also other ads in the Ameriprise series, including one that opens with Hopper in black shirt and sunglasses, standing on a white, sandy beach, holding a big black dictionary (see also opening photo above). That ad begins with Hopper reading from the book: “To withdraw, to go away, to disappear,” he says, quoting from the dictionary. “Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo night.”“That’s how the dictionary defines retire- ment.” Then he says in louder voice, “Time to redefine,” tossing the book aside as the Spencer Davis tune comes on. “Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo night. In fact, you could write a book about how you’re going to turn retirement upside down. . . .” Cut to the generic financial planning scenes and voiceover. Then back to Hopper: “. . .’Cause I just don’t see you playing shuffleboard, you know what I mean?”
Other Ameriprise ad.
Over the lifetime of the Dennis Hopper/Ameriprise ad series — which is still ongoing as of June 2008 — the ads have appeared on a variety of network and cable TV shows, including: NBC Sunday Night Football, LOST, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Desperate Housewives, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, and others. There have also been print, radio, and online components to the campaign.
Ameriprise landed a share of criticism for these ads, both in the blogosphere and from mainstream media critics, some taking shots at the use of Hopper in particular. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age — after offering a qualifying aside that “those ’60s dreams weren’t about bond yields and beach houses” — didn’t think Hopper was the right messenger. The casting of Hopper, he said “presumes that all leading-edge boomers identify with, or at least fondly recall Hopper’s transgressive roles and his generally schizoid persona. “This was a big mistake, said Garfield. “Not everyone from 1969 wanted to stick it to The Man.” Most boomers, he said, were not revolutionaries beyond bell bottoms and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. Bob Garfield of Advertis- ing Age noted that “those ’60s dreams weren’t about bond yields and beach houses.” The Establishment survived, he explained, and so “a fringe character like Hopper isn’t necessarily symbolic of his generation. Joni Mitchell would be a better choice.” Garfield noted that Hopper’s off-screen life “hadn’t been especially orderly, either.”
The ad also failed its sponsor, charged Garfield, for not explaining the brand, Ameriprise, which few people then knew. “This spot is a classic example of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, falling so in love with star power that it neglects the brand itself.” Still, Garfield conceded the spot was better than most financial planning advertising fare — “not like some brain-dead, condescending pitch… to an audience of presumably doddering old fools.” Could it be, Garfield wondered, that baby-boomers might be the first retirement age group “to be treated by Madison Avenue with dignity?” Explaining how Mad Ave normally did this kind of pitch, Garfield wrote: “One day you’re a vibrant worker with responsibility, income and possibly even a sex life and — wham — the next you’re a fearful dullard, being insultingly spoken down to by the very people who want your business.” So for Garfield, although Hopper may not have been the right icon, “we’re just thrilled it wasn’t Aunt Bea.”
'Easy Riders' - from left: Hopper, Fonda & Nicholson.
Diane Rohde, writing for The Onion.comin late May 2007, had some satirical fun with Hopper’s screen personas: “Retirement planning means a lot of decision making, and thank God I have the soothing presence of that amyl nitrite-huffing, obscenity-screaming, psychosexual lunatic from Blue Velvet to guide me through it.” She also added, “I’m sure that Dennis Hopper wouldn’t represent a company that was anything other than a rock of respectability. When I hear him in those commercials, it’s the familiar voice of a coke-dealing, LSD-fueled hippie cowboy biker putting me at ease….” In addition to the print send-ups, there were also a number of Dennis Hopper /Ameriprise video parodies that ran on You Tube and other sites — some quite hilarious. But others, such as blogger Lewis Green, liked the ad and thought it an effective way to reach boomers.
Hitting Their Mark
By late February 2007, the ads seemed to be hitting their mark — or at least some of them. USA Today found that the Ameriprise ads scored low overall with adults generally who were surveyed by its Ad Track weekly poll at that time. However, the target audience of boomer-age consumers generally had higher scores. About 50 percent of the boomers liked the ads “a lot” or “somewhat,” and 79 percent rated the ads “very effective” or “somewhat effective.”
“We know that these ads are striking a chord,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan in February 2007. “Financial services is a pretty staid field, so we wanted to bring a tone and personality that is more emotionally driven.” Even the criticism is a good sign, according to Sharan.“We know that these ads are striking a chord,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan, who added later, “… and in some ways is becoming part of our culture.” The Ameriprise website received an uptick in hits after the Onion.com piece appeared n May 2007, according to Sharan. That “shows our message is out there,” she said. “It’s resonating, and in some ways is becoming part of our culture.”
In August 2007, Ameriprise and its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi launched a second wave of Dennis Hopper ads. This round of TV advertising was accompanied by spots on the Web, and Ameriprise also paired with National Geographic to do some videos of people fulfilling their dreams who are aided by Ameriprise advisers. The company is hoping these efforts will go beyond boomers, and appeal as well to Generation-X. Ameriprise spent $110 million on advertising in 2006, according to the Nielsen Co., and about that much again in 2007. The second round of Hopper ads began their run in late 2007 early 2008 and as of June 2008 were still appearing.
'Palm Springs Magazine,' March '07.
In one early self-assessment of their advertising and branding efforts — which is generally referred to as the “Dreams Don’t Retire” campaign — Ameriprise found as of the 3rd quarter 2007, that mostly good things had resulted for the company. Total brand awareness for Ameriprise had increased 29 percent; traffic to its website, Ameriprise.com, was up 15 percent; assets under management increased 12 percent; clients in the target audience of “mass affluent and affluent Baby Boomers” increased 11 percent; and cost per lead generated by advertising decreased by 21 percent. Ameriprise’s stock price also increased 53 percent since the September 2006 launch of the campaign.
In partial summary, the company also offered this perspective:
“The new campaign was an opportunity to position Ameriprise in a way that no brand in the category had done before. The antithesis of the stodgy and outdated financial services company, Ameriprise brought to life the independent, irreverent, and optimistic character of the Boomer generation.
We used our television executions to inspire Boomers to start dreaming. The spots featured anti-hero Dennis Hopper riffing about dreams and their indelible power. Introducing a new vocabulary to the financial services world, the spots shifted the focus of retirement away from numbers. Hopper became a trustworthy advocate for Boomer dreams in a way that only he could. . .”
In April 2008, at an awards ceremony in New York, the Advertising Research Foundation awarded both its top-place Grand Ogilvy advertising award and the Gold Award for Financial Services to Ameriprise Financial for its multimedia national ‘Dreams Don’t Retire’ campaign.
As for Dennis Hopper, one can’t help but think that he had some fun making these commercials, and that he also had a few laughs in the process — including those on the way to the bank.
Jack Doyle, “Dennis Does Ameriprise, 2006-2008,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 17, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Dennis Hopper on the cover of Life magazine, June 19, 1970, as he began making a new movie in Peru following "Easy Rider." That movie was titled "The Last Movie," released in 1971.
Famous Andy Warhol portrait of Dennis Hopper, 1970-71.
Kemper Museum version: synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, Press Release, “New Evolution of Ameriprise Financial Advertising Emphasizes that “Dreams Don’t Retire”; Broadcast Ads Feature Actor Dennis Hopper and A 1960s-Style Red Chair,” September 7, 2006.
Bob Garfield, “Ameriprise’s Dennis Hopper Spot: Wrong Icon, Right Tone – Saatchi & Saatchi Work Hypes Star, Neglects Brand,” Advertising Age.com, November 19, 2006.
Laura Petrecca, “More Marketers Target Boomers’ Eyes, Wallets, USA Today, February 25, 2007.
“Dennis Hopper – Biography,” Biography.com, A&E Television Networks, 2007.
“Dennis Hopper,” Great Movie Actors at Movie Actors.com.
Diane Rohde, “There’s No More Reassuring Voice In Retirement Planning Than Dennis Hopper,” The Onion.com, May 30, 2007 | Issue 43•22.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc., “Online Strategy Plays a Primary Role in New Evolution of Ameriprise Financial Advertising – New television spots air tonight on ESPN Monday Night Football,” Business Wire, September 10, 2007.