Rants on all the ads that suck. Updated whenever it tickles my fancy to do so. Now moved to http://adsthatsuck.ca

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Co-opting Culture

(New Link: http://www.adsthatsuck.ca/archives/2005/07/coopting_cultur.php)

There is nothing more frustrating for me than seeing a commercial on television that would be perfect for this column, and then never seeing it again. This happened to me the other day when I saw the new Rickard's Red commercial with the monks singing about how great Rickard's Red is. Immediately, I hit record on my PVR, as it can record things you've already seen. Imagine my dismay when I find out that for some reason, the PVR only recorded part of the show, and not the part that had the commercial in it. Baffled, I was... and disappointed.

So, if you've seen this commercial, you might know what I'm talking about. If you don't - I'm sorry.

Basically, the commercial is as I described it. Half a dozen monks dressed in scarlet robes sing the virtues of Rickard's Red as it is poured. The song they are actually singing is from Carmina Burana - the first movement, O Fortuna. Even if you don't recognize the name, you've heard this song, I guarantee. It's standard end-of-the world music.

I have a lot of problems with this commercial... and all of them are on principle.

First of all, the monks change the lyrics to something like:
"Oh, Rickard's Red
So clean and smooth
We really like to drink it..."

(those aren't the actual lyrics, but they're similar, and they fit the rhythm)

The original lyrics, which are in Germanic Latin, translate to:
Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Yeah! Exactly what you're looking for in a beer commercial! The whole thing is about whores and how the world is dark and terrible. Granted, I'm probably one out of about 1000 that knows that, but still.

Second, I'm not sure what the monks have to do with anything. This particular piece was based on various poems and songs from the 13th century, some of them liturgical, but the music was written by Carl Orff in the 1930s.

Now, if it sounds like I'm nit-picking at this point, I am. All of my problems with this commercial go back to one thing, and that is co-opting culture, and that's what I'm going to rant about today.

I am not one of those people that believes that art and advertising should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I think there is room for a healthy relationship between art and the commercial world. This is something I take very seriously because I spend a lot of my time working in the arts, promoting theatre and music, performing and helping groups get their art to more people. When I see something like this, it makes me a little nauseous.

There are two kinds of relationships that art and commerce can have. The first is the ideal, and the one that I highly advocate for both sides. That is the symbiotic relationship, where art helps advertising, and advertising, in turn, helps art. You see this quite a bit, especially with a lot of the more progressive companies, and often, the companies with the smartest ad agencies. The example that springs immediately to mind is Volkswagen.

In 2001, they launched a campaign for the VW Cabrio that featured a song that most people hadn't heard of called "Pink Moon" by a guy named Nick Drake. I looked the song up, found out what it was called, and it remains one of my favourite songs to this day. I know at least two other people who found that song by the same means. Maybe they bought the CD, maybe they didn't, but the commercial gave a fairly unknown recording artist some international play. And, I'm sure they sold a few cars in the process.

The other kind seems more common, maybe because it screams at me whenever I see it, and that is the relationship we see here: the parasitic relationship where advertising co-opts a piece of music simply to sell their product. The artist gets no royalties because they're usually dead and the piece is in the public domain, and the music is already popular so it's not like the commercial is promoting high art. The result is people that only know Mozart's Moonlight Sonata as "the diamond song" and Beethoven's Ninth as "the milk song."

You see it all the time - President's Choice branding themselves with Michaelangelo and Raphael paintings is a perfect example. The company reaps all the benefit, and it uses up the art, commodifying it, and leaving it devoid of the meaning and beauty that made it last for centuries. I'm sure Rembrandt never conceived of The Girl With Pearl Earrings shilling eye drops, and I doubt he'd be very happy if he was still around.

This example is one of the worst. It changes the words of something that was once a beautiful piece, and mocks it. Maybe that's the nature of advertising - to be so naturally reductive that any meaning beyond the immediately intended is undesirable. I'd like to think not, but if that's the case, leave art alone. When there's such an opportunity for advertising to promote art, abusing it like this is criminal.

That being said, if you have never heard the original version of this song, and you ever get the chance to see it live, take it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of music you will ever hear. I guarantee it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every time I see a commercial that uses the Finale to the William Tell Overture with people running around at a 'SALE!!!'I cringe. It's right up there in class with home-made used car commercials.

7/25/2005 02:00:00 p.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You need to see the Carleton Draught Big Ad then! I just saw the Rickard's commercial this afternoon, and then someone sent me the Carleton link, and it made me laugh to see the similarities!


7/28/2005 10:48:00 p.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gennerally speaking, I agree about culture being co-opted. However in the case of Rickard's Red - I love the commercial (If you watch showcase, you'll see it a lot). In this case - they aren't monks - They are a choir (Lots of women in the choir). I love Carmina Burana, and the use of O Fortuna definately is selling to other than the 20-34 year old male. That doesn't happen too often in beer commercials. The ad is simple - powerful - and aimed at an older - audience - yup - that's me.

And I also agree with you about Nick Drake being great. But I like hearing his music in ads too. It gives a wider audience to a musician who died too young. If not for the use of Pink Moon in that ad - would you have ever heard him? How many other people have turned on to Nick Drake because of the use of various songs of his in commerecials? That's not a bad thing.

8/29/2005 11:05:00 a.m.

Blogger Ryan said...

I actually realized after I posted this that it was supposed to be a choir and not monks... I think the scarlet robes threw me off.

Honestly, I've warmed up to the spot a little since I wrote this, but it still rubs me the wrong way.

As for Nick Drake, I agree completely - and that was my point, which I guess didn't quite get across.

When advertising uses a lesser-known artist, people are exposed to him or her, which is good. When advertising uses well-known and established artists who have nothing to gain from being in the ad, and have no choice about being in the ad... then there's the parasitic relationship I was talking about.

8/29/2005 11:52:00 a.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


9/15/2005 06:19:00 p.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw the commercial tonight ( Nov.1, 2005 ) however I've seen it months ago when it first came out I guess.

I personally love the commercial.

I read your piece, wow, you got all of that out of their silly commercial ? come on now :-)

It's a pint of "glory", and the commercial does a fun job, and makes me want a pint. I dont' know, it's just a fun commercial, and they actually put some thougt into it, instead of just showing a few babes with big breasts with beer bottles in their hands ( don't get me wrong I love seeing tht also ), but hey it a fun commercial.

My 2 cents.

11/01/2005 10:57:00 p.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to see a copy of the lyrics. I can not make out the last line. Anyone got the lyrics?

11/02/2005 08:56:00 p.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with your statement. An advertiser that uses a "somewhat forgotten" piece of music and couples that with an inovative visual, especially one that "reintroduces" said forgotten sound track. Should be praised as a visionary, especially one as well as this.

In my opinion 80+% of todays media (music and/or adverts) rely hugely on historic media releases. Ones that actually make a viewer stop and think about the original (or maybe trying to find out what the original was) in the same time keeps the initial "product" in mind is a very successful ad. One that is very well done.

On the same note, an ad that makes you wonder about the original score, one that is not historic is a good thing - promotes new artists. But reinventing the originals gives the laymen a way of understanding where the new artists came from

Either way an inovative ad - such as this - promotes the score originator, the current reproducer, and the company that is exploiting that to promote their product. That is successful advertisment in my opinion.

11/11/2005 03:09:00 a.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is somewhat ironic, but the fact I stumbled across this website contradicts (to a degree) the thesis that this commercial takes from art and gives nothing back. While I have known the melody for the long time, I was never able to find out its name. (As far as I know, you can't Google a melody yet). So when I saw the commercial, I Googled "Rickard's Red commercial", came up here, and now know the song is O Fortuna, from Carmina Burana, and can now buy it on CD and read up on its history. This light-hearted parody allowed me to connect with a work of art that I really enjoyed.

11/14/2005 01:05:00 a.m.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simmilar to Ron's statement, I found myself wondering what the actual name was. I thought the commercial was well-done, as I think of Rickard's Red when I hear this song now. If that classifies as "suck" in your book, then we'd better hope you're not in Advertising or marketing.

11/18/2005 04:49:00 p.m.

Blogger Ryan said...

Well, anonymous, if you had bothered to read my post, you would have realized that you associating Carmina Burana with a shitty beer is exactly why I think this ad sucks. It's great for Molson - I don't dispute that. I'm not saying it's not an EFFECTIVE ad. My problem is that it further commodifies culture and gives little back, though, if you know what the piece is called now, I suppose that's a small victory.

If a product took a song that meant a lot to you and used it to sell a product, I think you would probably feel the same way.

And yes, I do work in advertising and marketing.

11/18/2005 06:21:00 p.m.


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