Annals of Commerce: the sacred and the profane

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?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

22 thoughts on “Annals of Commerce: the sacred and the profane”

  1. We’re perfectly comfortable with religious and cultural appropriation/stereotypes in our marketing already – Quaker Oats, Land O Lakes butter, Aunt Jemima, etc. etc. So Doritos uses a major piece of music that has major significance for a major population – so what? Commercials and advertisements are almost inherently in bad taste, overdetermined, unaesthetic, manipulative, and offensive. (The Apple and Volkswagen commercials included – I mean, especially the Apple one, which uses liberationist jargon to sell a product that hopes to be socially ubiquitous, using one of the century’s more important literary works that argues precisely against such double-speak – that seems at least as offensive, to me anyway, as the Doritos commercial.) But I could care less because it is so, so incredibly easy to avoid them.

    Now, the encroachment of advertising more and more into normal life – the enormous ads that wrap around buildings now, or those “billboards” on the backs of trucks that have no use but as moving billboards, or “sound-directed” adverts, etc. – all seem to me much bigger problems.

  2. Michael, what on Earth are you talking about? We’ve been primed by many spots at this point (Windex crows?) to know that clear glass does not mean something’s going to bounce off it–and you know the guy is going to get some kind of comeuppance. And when the women says, “Don’t hurt my dog”, it’s perfectly clear that he won’t get hurt. As for Verdi, it’s nothing like the oft-abused 1812 Overture or J. Srauss’s waltzes–the music is not front and center and is likely unfamiliar to all but the cognoscenti. The ad is typical junk-food stupid, with Doritios-specific slapstick set to some sinister classical music. Who cares?!

  3. I am actually not all that surprised that a man who would write lyrics to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” rather than its slightly more familiar cousin “The Star Spangled Banner,” would not be on the same page as his students. Unless his students were from London in the late 1700’s, of course.

    Besides, PUGS! How could anyone be offended by a Pug?

  4. I think that people have gotten quite used to pretty much any classical sacred music being used for the drama of its structure as opposed to being tied to its sacred meaning. How many people actually know the sacred stories that classical sacred music tell, anyway. Even when listening to them in a concert hall or a chapel, they are more likely to be stirred by the music than the story.

    The real problem here is that the next time you’re in a concert hall and hear this piece, you’ll think of a pug and Doritos. I had to stop using Samuel Barber’s amazing “Adagio for Strings” in my choreography after South Park used it as the dramatic background music to Jimmy beating up his girlfriend while on steroids in preparation for the Special Olympics.

  5. You are a crazy person. Guy taunts dog and get comeuppance. Days of wrath is the soundtrack. You are offended at the humor in this, for some reason? This post feels like some sort of right-wing caricature of PC liberal professors.

  6. Music of all kinds (religiously sourced or otherwise) is regularly used to inspire an emotional state in the audience behind which a product or an idea can hide and escape more rational scrutiny. In fact, that has pretty much been the intent of religious music all along, as far as I am concerned. Cute and distracting visuals are used in the same way. Note the attractive visuals that accompany and largely mask the droning recitation of side effects for the prescription drugs hawked on TV. You just noticed this now, with a dog in a chips ad? As for the source of the music, I venture to say that 99% of the audience would simply call it “classical music of some kind.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators of the ad knew little more than that about it as well.

  7. I’m much more offended by people who think pugs are dogs. Pugs are not dogs. Pugs are pugs, and sui generis.

  8. As noted, only people deeply into vocal/orchestral music would recognize the Verdi Requiem. I’ve been in the choir or orchestra for the Requiem three times, and I’m deeply into art music generally. While I knew I’d heard the music before I couldn’t quite place it beyond period (late Romantic). Frankly, it’s nice they didn’t choose O Fortuna from Carmina Burana. That’s become so stereotyped that I’d place a small bet that the producer/writers said something close to, “We want something like O Fortuna that isn’t O Fortuna.”

  9. As someone who was raised Catholic and lived with a dog who regularly went through screen doors, I believe the choice of sound track was masterful. The pug, in this commercial, represents the wrath of God.

  10. I am actually not all that surprised that a man who would write lyrics to “To Anacreon in Heaven,” rather than its slightly more familiar cousin “The Star Spangled Banner,” would not be on the same page as his students.

    Not to mention one who would identify the music used in the commercial as “the Manzoni Requiem,” complete with italics, as though that were the “real” title of the piece. Actually it’s Messa da Requiem, commonly known by the great unwashed of English-speaking classical music lovers as “Verdi’s Requiem.”

  11. I didn’t see the spot, and am not going to click on it here precisely because I don’t want to think of a pug and Doritos the next time I hear this piece. (Thanks, Guither, for boiling it down.) Which, I think, is one of the the points here. Michael circles it a bit but doesn’t really make explicitly: it’s hard to unsee or unhear things. I can choose not to click on a link, but it’s harder to lunge for the remote when a Requiem-using Doritos commercial comes on. TV-watching is voluntary, so it’s silly to say that we don’t have any choice, but in fact the unlimited appropriation of any and all music in the public domain does reduce our choice of how we hear it.

    As is so often the case on this site, one of the posters has asked two reasonable questions (are there any cases in which using sacred music to advertise chips is tasteless, and if so, is this one?), admitted that the answer does not come with a bright line, yet has been ridiculed for even asking it (“it’s just an ad!”). My answers: yes, and it sounds like yes. Too many people who talk about eroding values and weakening shared meanings in our society become surprisingly huffy when Mr. Dorito’s freedom to do almost anything is even questioned.

  12. OK, you saw a farce associated with Verdi – and now you can’t separate them. Your students can as they live in a world where such things are the norm. Be thankful that you have the sensitivity to create the attachment, I suspect that you don’t watch much TV (the CSI’s, Criminal minds).TV combined with the more violent Games now played do a wonderful job of desensitizing most folk.

    The first time I heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue being used for commercial purposes, I was offended. Now if it seems stuck on anything I go listen to Virgil Fox playing it – “Bach calling to God.” I may have to listen a few times but even though I am an atheist, the connection to this glorious music is restored.

    It is curious though, I didn’t even hear the Verdi with the Pug, but then I didn’t recall the ad either.Oh well…

  13. I see a problem with this too, but I think we should worry more about the lack of arts education we give kids and less about our garbage pop culture (about which we can do little). Kids today seem to grow up with all kinds of wired things we managed without, and that may be why their sensibilities are so numbed. If you’ve looked at a DS, you know what I’m talking about. Absolutely cr*p music, and graceless animation. But they don’t know any better.

  14. Uh oh, here come the grumbling seniors. Next they will complain that everyone dresses like slobs while the give the waitress a penny tip talk about how great that Matlock is and why Benny Goodman was the best ever. You’re old, we get it.

  15. The real problem here is that the next time you’re in a concert hall and hear this piece, you’ll think of a pug and Doritos. I had to stop using Samuel Barber’s amazing “Adagio for Strings” in my choreography after South Park used it as the dramatic background music to Jimmy beating up his girlfriend while on steroids in preparation for the Special Olympics.

    Are you serious? Seriously . . . are you serious? Because if you are serious, you should probably get out of the teaching biz post haste, because it sounds to me like you’re doing quite a bit of harm to your students. I mean, you’re acting as if a work of art is created to exist in a vacuum, and that it is a disservice to the hallowed shade of its creator to view it in any sort of context outside its own self-referential universe. Or, more succinctly, what exactly is the problem with (vanishingly unlikely) possibility that you’ll briefly think of a pug or South Park when you hear these pieces? Has the William Tell overture been ruined by the Lone Ranger? Can you listen to Orff without thinking of Jeremy Irons amidst the native Brazilians? I know I’m still pissed that I can’t enjoy Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” now that I’ve seen The Wire. “16 Tons”? Ruined — Tennessee Ernie Ford was on I Love Lucy. And it sure is too bad that Amadeus had all that Mozart music in it, because now I can’t enjoy Don Giovanni without Tom Hulce’s sweating face and powdered wig flashing before my eyes.

    You are making up problems where none exist.

  16. Strauss might or might not have approved of his appropriation for A Space Odyssey, but the use certainly didn’t trivialize the work. . .

    Well, trivialization is in the eye of the beholder. This approval of Coppola’s and Kubrick’s usage seems contingent on the perceived importance of their work. But that cuts both ways. The “importance” of 2001 and Apocalypse Now are what ensure that those pieces are now inseparable from the films in many people’s minds. But the same is not true of some silly Super Bowl commercial. The perceived triviality of a piece of cultural flotsam is precisely what ensures that there will be no lasting association with the music.

  17. In all your examples, a venerated figure is directly mocked. I don’t see how that’s the case in this commercial. The worst you can accuse the makers of is trivializing a religiously significant piece of music. But I doubt very many people even recognized the music (and that includes Catholics, of whom I am one who did not recognize it) and even if they did, that they wouldn’t be more amused than offended. Now I know some to my right in the church can get very bothered about anything that could be construed as an offence, but I don’t see one here. Am I missing something?

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