Friday, February 1

It's The End Of The Advertising World As I Know It (Updated)

R.E.M., one of the most politically active and environmentally conscious bands in the rock 'n' roll pantheon, is allowing one of its old songs ("I Am Superman," from the 1986 album "Life's Rich Pageant") to be used in new teevee ads for a big hulking Toyota SUV.

I think it was the Highlander or the Pathfinder being hawked in the commercial. I was too stunned to note exactly which vehicle was being paraded across the teevee screen. The song was performed by a cover band, but even this sterile, Michael Stipe-free version of "Superman" evokes the genius of R.E.M.'s original version.

Two thoughts:

First, I'd be curious to learn if any of the members of R.E.M. actually signed off on the deal that allows Toyota to use this song to sell more SUVs?

Second, this appears to be yet another case of an advertising agency selecting a song because three or four seconds of it sound good -- but not realizing that the song, taken in its entirely, detracts from or negates the message that the ad is trying to send to viewers.

For example, the refrain in the song that goes "I am / I am / I am Superman / And I can do anything" seem quite appropriate for a vehicle that can scale rugged terrain and traverse muddy paths.

However, the entire song isn't about having exceptional abilities. It's about stalking an ex-girlfriend.

Here's the full song, with some of the repeated stanzas cut out to save length:

I am / I am / I am Superman, and I know what's happening.
I am / I am / I am Superman, and I can do anything.

You don't really love that guy you make it with now, do you?
I know you don't love that guy cause I can see right through you.

I am / I am / I am Superman, and I know what's happening.
I am / I am / I am Superman, and I can do anything.

If you go a million miles away I'll track you down girl.
Trust me when I say I know the pathway to your heart.

It's hard to know what's more disconcerting: that a band of R.E.M.'s reputation now appears to be selling off pieces of its catalog to advertisers, or that people making the ads think that it's a good idea to connote their client's products (SUVs, in this case) with obsessive, jealous ex-boyfriends.

Of course, perhaps I'm right about the connotation idea. Perhaps the advertising agency is suggesting that Toyota SUVs are so nimble, yet rugged, that they are the perfect vehicle for people stalking and spying on their exes.

If I'm correct about that, I expect we'll soon see a new Ford Explorer campaign wrapped around the Police classic "Every Breath You Take."

Update: Feb. 2, 2008, 10:43 p.m. — Check out the comments I have received since writing this post last night. It turns out that R.E.M. was just covering a song that was written by someone else. Even if R.E.M. has a very tight leash on its own intellectual property, it probably can't exert much control over others' music and lyrics. Ergo, we get this "I Am Superman"-Toyota ad.

I still believe that "I Am Superman" is a poor musical selection for an an advertisement. One of the comments suggests the song doesn't have nefarious overtones: it's just about a guy who's trying to win a woman away from her current beau.

I disagree. "I Am Superman" is creepy. The claim that "I can do anything" is disturbing. And when the singer boasts that knows what's happening, he'll track down the woman, and "can see right through you," it doesn't sound like wooing. It sounds like a threat.

"I Am Superman" isn't a torch song. It's a love-me-or-I'll-torch-your-house song.


Anonymous said...

REM probably didn't have anything to do with it. The song in the commercial, actually is a really good version of a cover, of a cover, of a cover. The song is a cover of a 1969 song by The Clique, written by producer/songwriter Gary Zekley and Mitchell Bottler. The song was originally released as the b-side to The Clique's hit "Sugar on Sunday", itself a cover of a Tommy James and the Shondells song.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was written by Gary Zekley, so R.E.M. has nothing to do with it. Gary Zekley died over 10 years ago, so EMI is probably making the deals. The song is not about "stalking an ex-girlfriend". It was written to "woo" a girl AWAY from the guy she was with. In other words Zekley was writing about "Drop that zero, and get with a hero."

Anonymous said...

My name is Sydney Zekley....I am the daughter of Gary Zekley who wrote "i am superman".. I own the publishing and it is my decision what happens with my fathers music. R.E.M has nothing to do with my fathers song.
and please make an attempt to get the facts straight if you are going to write articles about my father.