Ever since 1984, advertising during the Super Bowl has been a sort of contest to match the success of Apple’s immortal commercial. There were a couple of home runs (Darthito Vader and the Volkswagen is a stitch) but mostly they seemed to try to one-up each other on the juvenile humor scale; Pepsi, for example, had the idea that being knocked to the ground with a thrown soda can to the head is funny (it worked for Ignatz and Krazy, didn’t it? Next year, a rubber crutch, if possible at the head of a flight of stairs!). Maybe there was some kind of contest at the bar where the ad guys hang out.
Among these, though, I was astonished by the spot with the pug and continue to be a little surprised that no-one has taken serious offense (there was a little noise about teasing the dog as animal abuse which actually doesn’t bother me, especially as the dog comes out (literally) on top). I brought this up in my arts policy class and to my surprise, the students were pretty much OK with it despite my most earnest provocation. My students are pretty sensible, but I’m still mystified that this wasn’t widely deplored, so I’m going to drag it out here and see what readers think.
To put this in context, consider (what seem to me) some comparable exercises:
- Last Prophet Organic Free-Range Pork: “If Muhammad had tried it, the halal rules would be different!”
- A Prairie Home Companion skit: Moses comes down from the mountain with the tablets, sees the golden calf, starts to lose it, but is smoothed out with a slice of Bebop-a-Rebop rhubarb pie.
- Cookies made with leftover, fully blessed, communion wafers: “A little bit of Jesus in every one!”.
- A first aid cream commercial in which a slave is whipped, and the welts are then relieved with the product.
- This jingle, to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven:
Heartbreaken are we,
When the case of Bud Light
That we stowed when we sailed
Is all drunk before evening.
The background music for the pug commercial, of course, is not just any old exciting music, but the Dies Irae of the Manzoni Requiem. A Requiem Mass has words, and the words in this cut describe the day of judgment. A Requiem is one of the especially awesome ceremonies of the Catholic religion, celebrated in remembrance of the dead; Mass is a sacrament. This one is one of the great works by an immortal, written to mourn the death of another, both worshipped or close to it as heroes, even creators, of the Italian political, artistic and literary heritage at a time when the country was liberating itself from colonial oppression, not to mention real creative geniuses. How many ways is this off the rails?
This isn’t personal; I’m not Catholic (OK, I do think Verdi rules). I am entirely comfortable with derivative works, parody, and creative reuse. Great artists aren’t gods to worship: when they put their stuff out, it’s ours to use and to ridicule from time to time. Strauss might or might not have approved of his appropriation for A Space Odyssey, but the use certainly didn’t trivialize the work, which is in any case not sacred to anyone (no, Also Sprach Zarathustra is not a Zoroastrian hymn!). The “Ride of the Valkyrie” was just fine in Coppola’s hands in Apocalypse Now. Singing opera arias in the shower is OK. This one, though, just feels like a distinctive, over-the-top level of abuse, sort of like cutting up the quilt Aunt Millie made into wiping rags for your garage.
Verdi’s reputation will survive having his most serious work cropped and used to sell junk food and no-one’s faith is at risk here. But how many people have to delight in a bag of Doritos they otherwise wouldn’t have eaten to balance out the cost of having the dog and the idiot pop into the heads of others every time they hear the Verdi Requiem? I’m sure there isn’t a bright line rule here (and I’m super sure this isn’t about regulation or making laws). I’m OK with Mozart cookies and confession jokes and jokes about characters meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. But I am a little mystified that this commercial wasn’t condemned as being way over a taste line, blasphemy and impiety in the service of a particularly trivial and venal purpose, a perfect fit among the examples I made up above. Or maybe they’re OK too, or would be with good production values?