Ain't that America?
U.S. celebrities making pitches for large corporations is nothing new. But it is if you're John Mellencamp, long known as an artistic purist with a disdain for commercialism.
The Bloomington resident's debut this fall as a pitchman for Chevrolet's Silverado pickup truck has surprised many and touched off a torrent of criticism.
But the 55-year-old Seymour-born crooner, known early on as Johnny Cougar, makes no apologies.
"This is what [artists] are going to have to do if they're not 21 years old and they want people to hear their music," he told United Press International earlier this fall.
It's a natural evolution, Mellencamp said.
After all, the list of singers who have recently appeared in commercials includes rapper Jay-Z, rock group U2 and even legendary folk rocker Bob Dylan.
Mellencamp is replacing Bob Seger, whose song "Like A Rock" was Silverado's anthem for a decade, at the same time country poster child Toby Keith is busy being Ford tough.
But none of those artists–at least not quite so vocally–spent the better half of the last three decades demonizing anyone who attached their tunes to commercials.
"I don't think it's the message some people are protesting; it's the messenger," said Bill Hanley, partner in the local advertising agency Daugherty Tegarden Hanley who formerly worked for a Los Angeles talent agency.
The reaction to the ad campaign has been as passionate as Mellencamp's trademark ballads.
The New York Times labeled Mellencamp a turncoat, and called his new song, "Our Country," which is played in the Chevy ads, "jingoistic."
Popular Detroit morning disc jockeys Drew Lane and Mike Clark, of WRIF-FM 101.1, called Mellencamp a "sellout."
Internet music message boards are filled with postings voicing similar sentiments.
Many Mellencamp fans are smarting from what they call an ultimate betrayal of values.
One Internet poster, for instance, recalled a Mellencamp concert 15 years ago at the Rosemont Horizon, where the singer went on an anti-commercialism tirade targeting the use of the Beatles' song "Revolution" in a Nike campaign.
Mellencamp isn't responding to the onslaught. While he agreed to interviews surrounding the campaign's launch, he has nothing further to say on the topic, said Bob Merlis, Mellencamp's Los Angeles publicist.
In October, he told UPI: "I want my records to be heard. That's why I write 'em. MTV doesn't even play videos anymore. How do you get it out there and … stay relevant?"
He told Rolling Stone: "I always had a firm belief music shouldn't be in commercials. That is until the record companies sold us all out."
Neither Chevrolet officials nor Mellencamp are releasing financial terms of the deal, though entertainment experts value it at $5 million to $10 million.
That wouldn't necessarily all be in the form of a big check to the performer. Chevrolet already helps publicize and support Farm Aid, Mellencamp's pet fund-raising project, and industry observers say the carmaker could sponsor and promote the release of his upcoming album and concert tour.
Evolution of a pitchman
Slowly, over the last five years, Mellencamp has showed more willingness to attach himself to commercial projects.
First, in 2002, Mellencamp adapted his song "Peaceful World" into an anthem for the Indy Racing League.
During last year's men's Final Four, Mellencamp sang Rockin' in the NCAA, an adaptation of his 1985 hit "R-O-C-K in the USA."
But those promotions pale in size and scope to his latest ad campaign, which aired heavily during this year's TV broadcast of the World Series and is played weekly during NBC's "NFL Sunday Night Football."
Mellencamp's first two ventures into advertising might have been seen as cause marketing, local advertising executives said, with the native Hoosier supporting the hometown racing league and college basketball, of which he has been a longtime fan.
Besides, the men's Final Four was held last year in Indianapolis, just 50 miles north of his home.
"The Chevrolet ad is pure commercialization," Hanley said. "There's no doubt what its intent is: Sell trucks."
Hitting the spot
Still, Mellencamp's Chevy campaign is a long way from Keith's singing a specially made Ford song and playing a guitar emblazoned with Ford's logo, said Randy Schwoerer, who formerly ran a sports-and-entertainment marketing consultancy in Indianapolis.
"When I heard John Mellencamp was doing a big TV ad campaign for Chevy, I was stunned," said Schwoerer, who now heads the Mobile, Ala., office of Entertainment Service International, a booking agency working with artists like The Guess Who and Spencer Davis.
"If this was done incorrectly, it had potential to do a lot of damage to John's reputation because he's been so outspoken against this type of thing.
"But when I first saw it, I thought, 'Wow.' This is a different kind of spot. That song is more of an anthem of what America stands for, and that's the way the commercial comes off."
Mellencamp never directly pitches viewers to buy a Chevrolet. He doesn't even mention the carmaker's name. He merely performs "Our Country" amid a backdrop of scenes, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, woven together with images of firefighters and factory workers.
At the end, a voice–not Mellencamp's–says, "Our country. Our truck."
"From an advertising standpoint, it feels like a pretty good fit," said Tom Denari, president of Young & Laramore, Indianapolis' largest advertising agency. "The song and John Mellencamp try to represent middle America, where Chevrolet tends to play."
The campaign is scheduled to run at least through 2007. It was produced by Interpublic Group's Campbell-Ewald, an ad agency with offices in California and Michigan that counts Michelin, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Postal Service among its clients.
Mellencamp denies writing the song for Chevrolet.
"About a year ago, I wrote this song to tell a story about some of the challenges our country faces and how our beliefs and ideals can help us meet them," Mellencamp said in a statement provided by his publicist.
"This partnership with Chevy, an American company that is still creating jobs and supporting our communities, makes perfect sense for a song that is all about standing up for the working people who are the backbone of our nation."
Mellencamp approached Chevy's ad agency with "Our Country" just as it was reviewing pitches for the Silverado campaign, Chevrolet officials said.
"I knew the minute I heard the song that would be the music for the next epic Silverado campaign," said Bill Ludwig, Campbell-Ewald's chief creative officer.
"We hope that 'Our country. Our truck,' will inspire people to think, 'Yeah, these are the bruises and scars that have shaped our nation, and we have rebuilt ourselves spiritually, emotionally and physically."
Mellencamp filmed his appearance for the Silverado television commercials in September near Savannah, Ga., where he simultaneously filmed the music video for "Our Country."
Riding Chevy's marketing muscle
The deal is as much about selling records for Mellencamp as it is about selling trucks for Chevy, Hanley said.
"He's reaching a much broader audience through Chevrolet's powerful marketing arm than he ever could by himself," Hanley said. "He's still a big deal in Indiana, but Mellencamp's star has long been fading nationally."
Not coincidentally, Hanley said, the commercial campaign started mere months before Mellencamp is to release his new album, "Freedom Road," in early 2007. It's his first release in more than five years.
Each Sunday night, Mellencamp's Chevy commercials reach 22 million households nationwide, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research.
Chevrolet's parent, General Motors Corp., spends a whopping $1.5 billion annually on advertising, the lion's share going toward the company's pickup trucks and SUVs.
The groundwork for Mellencamp's about-face on commercialism might have been laid in 2001, when he released the critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing "Cuttin' Heads" album.
Mellencamp went on his longest music-making hiatus since he hit the scene in the 1970s.
After contemplating retirement, Mellencamp saw other musicians using corporate commercials to energize their careers.
"Look, Bob Dylan just had the biggest [Billboard Magazine chart] entry in his life," Mellencamp told TheRockRadio.com earlier this year.
"Came in at, I think, No. 1. Never in his life has he entered the charts that way. And why did that happen? Because of the iPod commercial. There's no question about it. The iPod commercial looked cool, Bob looked great, the song sounded great."
Dylan's recently released "Modern Times" album indeed debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's chart, the best start for any of his nearly 50 albums.