Does Intel want you to steal music?

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 21 2002 10:20 AM

A Burning Question

Does Intel want you to steal music?

We've been living with digital piracy—or music file sharing, if you prefer—for quite a while now, and the issue remains as divisive as ever. The record industry still seems to hope that it can "educate" consumers into abstaining from the practice, announcing a series of ads in which stars like Madonna and Nelly will break the shocking news to music fans that downloading unauthorized MP3s is akin to stealing. In light of the lingering controversy, it's startling to see a recent Intel commercial featuring a bunch of kids having the time of their lives using their PCs to burn their own CD compilations, all to the tune of a pop song by Moby. Here's a major company that seems to be shrugging at piracy and with a major recording artist involved to boot. See the spot here, via Ads.com.

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The ad: Titled "A Day in the Digital Life," the spot shows various scenes in which a PC is an integral part of the American family experience. Folks watch the news on a laptop while Dad makes eggs. Grandpa creates a T-shirt featuring a digital picture that was e-mailed to him, and so on. But the most interesting passage in the ad begins with the subtitle, "Intel inside your music." A smiling teenager clicks "burn CD" and then is shown handing around his homemade discs to some pals to play in a car stereo. All the while, the Moby tune "We Are All Made of Stars" plays, with its opening line "Growing in number" suggesting that the integration of the computer into all aspects of life is an unstoppable force.

Pro-piracy? It's possible that Junior has merely made a CD of, say, his own compositions and performances. Or maybe just the equivalent of a mix tape, consisting entirely of songs that he paid for. But what's striking is that the ad leaves open the possibility that he's up to something else. In contrast, Apple's famous "Rip. Mix. Burn" ad a while back was very explicit in showing various musicians giving permission to a potential CD-burning kid. But even that commercial ticked off content providers everywhere, including Michael Eisner, who groused that the unspoken premise of the computer industry was that "piracy is the killer app." One of those who responded to this charge with some exasperation was Intel honcho Andy Grove, who basically suggested that the entertainment kings ought to figure out how to deal with the future, instead of trying to prevent it. In light of all that, it's obvious that the vagueness of this ad—there's nothing to suggest that this kid's CD isn't made up exclusively of material grabbed via Morpheus—must be extremely annoying to the record industry. From their point of view, the ad makes it look like file sharing is as wholesome as sending pictures to Gramps.

Sound "effect." And then there's the Moby soundtrack, which strongly suggests that all of this is A-OK with him. This may come as a surprise, because earlier this year on his blog, Moby lamented what he called "the Pearl Jam effect." Artists with "very technically savvy fans," he asserted, "will see their records do poorly in the charts, whereas bands/artists who have less technically savvy fans will see their records do quite well in the charts. … Bands/artists with technically savvy fans will have a lot of fans who will end up downloading music or burning CDs, whereas less tech-savvy fans will generally end up buying their CDs." He goes on to suggest that Weezer may be as popular as Pink, but the charts don't reflect it because of fans of Weezer—and Pearl Jam and Moby—are tech-savvy enough to have downloaded the records rather than buying them. (I don't really buy the "Pearl Jam effect" argument. Click here to read why.)

Background music. Moby also says—and this is a fairly important caveat—that's he's not complaining or even "editorializing." He closed his blog entry by writing that "having an opinion on burning and downloading is kind of like having an opinion on the weather. [It] isn't really going to change anything." He's right about that, and maybe it indirectly explains why he's providing the background music for an ad that endorses CD burning. The ad is shrewd in simply painting a portrait of what people do with their computers these days, without berating or judging them for it. And if Moby can associate himself with that general vibe, then why not? The spots will probably put "We Are All Made of Stars" in front of a lot more ears than pop radio did—what the hell, it might even sell some records.

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Grimace update: In last week's column on the McDonald's ad featuring The Donald and The Grimace, I wondered why in the world the harmless purple thingy has such an unpleasant name. Several people wrote in to say that in the early days of McDonaldland, he wasn't harmless—he was The Evil Grimace, a six-armed baddie. But a huge round of applause to The Fray on this one, for the concise discussion  here and especially for the link to this site, which even has an image of Evil Grimace. Way to go Fray—burgers for everybody!

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.