Oct 09

Tuning Authenticity, part 4

Cool marketing

Authenticity in music basically gets circulated in two different discourses: that of the ‘black’ tradition and that of the ‘white’. For the black dance music tradition the use of vocals and funky instrumentation is of key interest, whereas the white dance music tradition is more preoccupied with futurism and the revelations of technology.

In fact, when Juan Atkins – one of the founding fathers of techno music – heard European synth-pop from the likes of Kraftwerk, Telex and Devo played on the radio in Detroit around 1980, he thought they were good, but that they weren’t “funky”. Tracing the word “funk” back to the African state Congo in the 17th Century, we find that it originally was used as an expression for the scent of the body, and it would seem appropriate, as Sarah Thornton maintains, that black authenticity is bound to a rhetoric of body and soul, while the white dance music tradition seeks to minimize the body and the human.

Maybe this is part of the explanation why companies have increasingly turned to black culture in their search for authentic cool factors to integrate into the building of their brands. One of the best examples of this is how German shoe manufacturer Adidas bought into the credibility of American rappers Run-DMC, whose signature style of black-and-white Adidas tracksuits and sneakers worn without laces was vastly copied amongst their huge fan base. In 1986, after the release of the Run-DMC hit single “My Adidas” – a homage to the brand they had always worn – Russell Simmons, president of Run-DMC’s label Def Jam, approached Adidas to probe into the possibility of a sponsorship for the act’s 1987 Together Forever tour.

RUN DMC - unlaced Adidas and all (photo used with kind permission by Glen E. Friedman - burningflags.com)

RUN DMC – unlaced Adidas and all (photo used with kind permission by Glen E. Friedman – burningflags.com)

Adidas was skeptical about being associated with rap music, but when invited to a Run-DMC show where thousands of animated fans waved their Adidas sneakers over their heads during the “My Adidas” song, Adidas not surprisingly decided in favor of the deal and subsequently backed the tour with USD 1,5 million. And not long after the show, a new line of Run-DMC shoes was presented: the Super Star and the Ultra Star – designed to be worn without laces.

This brought new meaning to the notion of product placement – the integration of a product into the entertainment medium itself, blurring the distinction between the two. Product placement was quite a big thing in the years following the Second World War, when large companies like Proctor & Gamble financed soap operas in return for having their products worked into the scripts. The practice faded in the 1960’s as producers believed consumers preferred a clearer boundary between entertainment and advertising, but returned strong in the 1980’s with confectionary maker Hershey’s decision to feature Reese’s Pieces in the E.T. movie.

Product placement can be divided into three different types: 1. visual placement, when a product, service or logo can be observed; 2. usage placement, when a product, service or corporation is actively handled; and 3. spoken placement, when a product, service or corporation is integrated into dialogue, voice-over or – in the case of rap music – the lyrics.

For apparel company Tommy Hilfiger, the break came in the early 1990s when Hilfiger’s nephew managed to successfully place Hilfiger products on some major Def Jam artists. Revenues went from USD 138.6 million in 1993 to USD 227.2 million the year after when rapper icon Snoop Doggy Dogg stepped onto the Saturday Night Live show with the Hilfiger logo on his jersey.

The American rapper Busta Rhymes’ hit “Pass the Courvoisier” from 2002 is often mentioned as yet another landmark in the deal between brands and bands. Like Run-DMC with “My Adidas”, Busta Rhymes made an artistic choice to include the Courvoisier cognac in his song – in fact both in the title line, in the lyrics and in the video – but solely because the Courvoisier name fitted. At least, this is the official story. Informed sources speculate that Russell Simmons’ marketing agency, dRush who was hired two years before to reinvigorate the Courvoisier image, could easily have brokered a deal.

As trivial as this may seem, it is a question of vital interest for the street credibility of the artist. And though Busta Rhymes apparently did not receive any means of payment to use the brand in his song, his management company, Violater, later reached a promotional agreement with Allied Domecq, who owns the cognac brand. According to Allied Domecq, “Pass the Courviosier” helped increase the sales of the cognac by 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2002 and brought growth into double digits later in the year.

Countless rap artists are now name checking corporate products in their lyrics, and high-profile rappers like Jay-Z has increased the urban profile for products like Nike, Motorola, Belvedere, Versace, Chloe, Range Rover, Filthmart, Rolex, and Mercedes-Benz. Almost half of these brands appear on the American Brandstand, a chart based on the brands that appear in the lyrics of songs in the top 20 songs of the Billboard Hot 100.

Quite a few celebrities in the hip hop community now also have their own product lines to flash in their songs, videos and public appearances. Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Nelly, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Ice-T and Eminem are among those with their own clothing lines, and Russell Simmons’ spin-off to his Def Jam label, Phat Farm, is a rap-inspired fashion label dealing with everything from women’s wear, perfume and sneakers to cell phones, and with an energy drink in the pipeline. The rap phenomenon 50 cent has teamed up with Reebok to develop his personal shoe line, just as Jay-Z did before him, and Ludacris has made a deal with Sole City Inc. for his own shoeline. The list is never ending and is now broadening in perspective to also include “regular” pop music jumping the band wagon with the launch of Kylie Minogue’s lingerie collection, LoveKylie.