Madonna and Missy Elliott fall into the Gap.

Advertising deconstructed.
Aug. 25 2003 10:53 AM

Madonna Falls Into the Gap

Her new ad's a dud, but Devo cleans up the mess.

Madonna and Missy, getting into the retail groove
Madonna and Missy, getting into the retail groove

Remember the song "Good Vibrations," as it was reworked with Sunkist-specific lyrics? Or whatever that hair-care product was that was peddled by a woman singing, "I'm gonna wash that gray right outta my hair!"? As ubiquitous as popular music is in ads these days, the practice of reworking lyrics for the benefit of the advertised product has mostly faded. Or it had until recently. This formerly shunned practice returns in two recent ads: one in which Madonna and Missy Elliott perform on behalf of the Gap (see it here) and another in which Devo sings for something called Swiffer (see it here.).

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The much anticipated Madonna ad is a total dud. In it, she dances about on a city-street movie set, lip-syncing a song that mixes the beats of "Into the Groove" with lyrics from the more recent single "Hollywood." Then Missy Elliott pops up and does a short rap on the subject of Gap jeans, and the two improbably prance about like good, Gap-shopping friends. Madonna sings the closing line, "Get into the groove, got to show ya some moves, best to take it from me. …" Totally limp.

As a failure, the ad is interesting because Madonna has always been praised as much for her ability to market herself as for her actual talent as a singer and performer. Long before the "cool hunter" idea entered mainstream marketing discourse, she was renowned for spotting new trends and exploiting them for her own benefit. But in the wake of yet another box office tanking (what was that last movie called?) and disappointing album sales, she can't even get an actual commercial right. Maybe Madonna really is over. 

The Swiffer ad makes no particular attempt to be hip, self-conscious or otherwise. It's a totally by-the-numbers spot in which a central casting Mom robot-dances around her suburban habitat, using Swiffer cleaning products. The sound track is "Whip It," given new lyrics: "When you've got a dirty floor/ You need Swiffer …" and so on, climaxing with, "With Swiffer—place looks great! It's not too late! Swiffer's good!" There's a mild joke at the end as Mom's daughters (curiously dressed in 1980s outfits) hope that they will not inherit whatever condition has afflicted the old lady.

This is the most preposterous ad I've seen all year—and I love it. It's hilarious. And it only works because they got Devo's actual lead singer, Mark Mothersbaugh, to sing the sublimely stupid new lyrics.

Advertising Age reported the debut of this spot with the headline "Former Anti-Business Band Does P&G Commercials," and the story referred to "Whip It" as "the anthem of … Devo's rage against a society dehumanized by industry and commercialism." I would call that a novel interpretation of the song's essentially meaningless lyrics, but never mind. It's certainly true that Devo had a vaguely angry and corrosive attitude (or pose?) toward consumer society in general.

But to ask whether this means Devo has "sold out" completely misses the point. Mothersbaugh told Ad Age that the band agreed to remake the song for the commercial because "it was so absurd." He understates the case: The ad is perverse. As an aside, this isn't the first commercial to feature a Devo song: Target used "It's a Beautiful World" not long ago (a song that might actually qualify as a rage-filled anthem, albeit a subtle one; the less subtle video featured a series of nuclear explosions). 

I would say that the Swiffer spot comes off as a parody, but that's not quite right. Because what makes it so delightful is that somebody at an ad agency actually thought it would be a good idea. Given the opportunity to make such a self-evidently foolish thing into a reality, placed in time slots aimed at the mythic American Housewife, it would have been a crime for Devo to say no. The name "Devo" was, after all, short for "devolution," a kind of evolution in reverse—so how could they possibly stand in the way of such a perfect crystallization of that idea?

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

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