Sorry I am a bit late on the ball with this topic, but I am only one person here and, as most of you know by now, real life has been very demanding for me as late. But rest assured this topic has been on my brain ever since the announcement was officially made on May 4th that Pepsi would be teaming with the Michael Jackson Estate to bring us…well, one billion commemorative Pepsi cans with Michael’s image, all set to neatly tie in with the 25th anniversary celebration of the Bad album. This marketing ploy is no doubt bringing us some exciting stuff to look forward to, including the product I am most excited about-release of the 1988 Wembley concert! But along with this campaign is coming the usual mixed feelings in the fan community, especially in regard to Pepsi’s involvement-not to mention, a bag of mixed reviews from the media. Most of the mixed feelings can be directly tied to two factors-the appropriateness (or not) of using a dead star’s image to sell a commercial product (even if said star did have a long-standing relationship with that company during life) and, more specifically, the appropriateness of endorsing a Pepsi campaign using Michael’s image when it was, after all, Pepsi who was responsible for his near fatal accident in 1984. And who turned their back on him after the ’93 allegations. Or did they? Well, I’ve read some sources that dispute this, but I will address that particular issue in more depth in just a bit.
Personally, I’m pretty jizzed about the new products. I guess I’m one of those fans whose motto is: The more Michael, the better. I think it’s exciting that his image will be all over my grocery store shelves this summer. In truth, visibility is everything when it comes to keeping an artist relevant and alive for the younger generation. It’s certainly not that Michael needs these things to keep his music and art relevant for those of us, like me, who grew up with him and were there. But for him to remain a viable commodity for the youth market, this visibility is crucial. Current projects such as the Cirque du Soleil show, the recent Glee episode, and this Pepsi campaign are the sort of projects that will help ensure that today’s generation continues to discover and to remember him.
I can’t deny that I feel a surge of pride when I see articles like this:
But there is another side to this, as well. It’s the same conundrum (call it a moral dilemma, if you will) that many fans feel when new music is released, especially music that has been “doctored up” by Sony. On the one hand, there is the knowing of how Michael felt about Sony in his last years, and the questioning of where do we draw the moral line when it comes to exploitation of Michael for profit. But on the other hand, there is the undeniable pride I feel when I see him sitting at the top of the charts, or-as in the case with The Immortal World tour-outselling even all living artists to have the number one grossing tour in the US!
This Forbes article gives a really good indication of how Michael Jackson is currently outselling all deceased AND living artists combined, and this was even before the Cirque du Soleil show had gotten underway!
Perhaps one reason I can unabashedly take so much pride in such numbers is because I do NOT attribute these numbers solely (as many of these pat-on-the-back articles do) to the business savvy of Branca and McClain, but rather, squarely back to where the REAL credit belongs. These numbers are a direct result of the business savvy, work ethic, and continuing appeal of THE MAN HIMSELF. Okay, I’m not saying they don’t deserve some credit where credit is due. Just saying, though, that without the body of work that Michael built over a forty year career (and that from having worked his li’l skinny butt off from the age of five), and without his own smarts in creating Sony/ATV, and without the legacy that can only be attributed to the hard work and dedication of Michael himself, none of the rest of it would matter. The truth is this, and nothing else: People continue to spend their hard-earned dollars on Michael Jackson’s music and merchandise simply because they still care, and because Michael Jackson still matters to them! Because he made timeless music that, thirty years later, people still WANT to hear! It’s as simple as that. Without that factor, no amount of business savvy in the world on the part of his estate would matter.
But with that knowledge comes the next inevitable step: Michael Jackson as a brand. Well, before we start feeling too guilty, we should keep in mind that Michael himself was the biggest CEO of his own brand and marketing, even down to the night he made the calculated decision to wear a fedora hat and rhinestone glove to perform his Billie Jean routine at Motown 25. I was recently listening to a two hour radio tribute show (originally broadcast in 2009 on 93.7) in which the DJ mentioned how Michael was a genius of creating his own brand:
Artists endorsing commercial products was certainly nothing new in 1984 when Michael signed on with Pepsi. In fact, as part of The Jackson 5, Michael had been used to endorsing products as far back as the early 70’s when these Alpha Bit cereal commercials originally ran:
What was new in the 80’s was the unprecedented signing of multi-million dollar endorsement deals that pretty much guaranteed that an artist’s name and image would be exclusively and inextricably linked to a product for years on end. This was the dawning of the era of artist corporate sponsorship-and Michael Jackson’s reported $5 million deal with Pepsi was at the forefront of it. But corporate sponsorship would not come without controversy. For many music purists in the 80’s, multi-million dollar deals between music artists and corporate sponsors would become the dividing line between true artists and commercial pop stars. We heard the term “sell out” being brandied about more than ever. For many who were already jealous of Michael Jackson’s mega success-and looking for any excuse to dethrone him- the “sell out” label became all the excuse needed to tie him to the whipping post.
When I recently wrote a rebuttal series to Bill Wyman’s 1991 article “I Want Me Back: The Education of Michael Jackson” (and for which I apologize that Part 3 has been so long in coming) Michael’s Pepsi endorsement became a central piece of that article. In 1991 this was still a hot topic, which was why Wyman spent considerable time on it before moving on to other, even more controversial issues.
As a refresher, here is what he said specifically in regards to the Pepsi sponsorship:
… like many other rock stars today, he has become efficiently, almost ruthlessly adept at making money off his name. Jackson got out of his father’s financial clutches before Thriller: with its proceeds he started investing in music publishing, most notably by purchasing the rights to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Northern Songs. Music publishing generates money hand over fist and can only increase in value. Jackson is fabulously rich and getting richer all the time, yet he has also been a leader in selling his name to the highest bidder. For every Pepsi deal there has been an embarrassing debacle, like Jackson’s short-lived alliance with LA Gear. Taraborrelli’s book doesn’t even bother to mention one of the tackiest merchandising moves ever made by a major star (and boy is that saying something), an ad placed in Women’s Wear Daily, of all places, announcing in screaming headline type that “MICHAEL JACKSON’S NAME IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR LICENSING.” “Put the most powerful name in American entertainment to work for you,” the ad suggested, helpfully providing several product possibilities: from underwear, mugs, lunch buckets, and hosiery to “small electrics” and “domestics” (Michael Jackson maids?). Is there nothing Jackson won’t do for some sort of price? The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to use “Beat It” in a drunk driving commercial? Fine–as long as the president will give me, let’s see, how about a humanitarian award?
Now even if, like me, you think unimaginably rich rock stars shilling for shoe, beer, and soft-drink companies is a pathetic sight, there are a number of extrafinancial benefits and rationalizations to be made that put Jackson’s deals in a better light. For nearly 15 years his financial dealings were in the hands of people who did not have his best interests in mind, with the predictable results. You could argue, theoretically at least, that it is better for the commodity, so to speak, to have control over itself than to be at the service of another entity: in this sense, the Pepsi commercials, models of the form, are as much a commercial for Michael Jackson as they are for Pepsi.
Obviously, I have my own bones to pick with Wyman (hence my series rebutting his article) but in this section, I think he does an accurate job of summing up how many AT THE TIME had begun to view Michael Jackson as a corporate sellout. Regardless of whether you agree with Wyman’s assessment or not, this is an invaluable time capsule piece that allows us a glimpse into the mindset of twenty-one years ago and how many at the time perceived Michael Jackson as a ruthless marketer of his own brand. But to Wyman’s credit (if we can allow him this much) he also concedes, despite his overall cynical tone, that the Pepsi endorsement was an undeniably brilliant business move. This is what he means when he says that “…the Pepsi commercials…are as much a commercial for Michael Jackson, as they are for Pepsi.”
Absolutely! Back in the mid and late 80’s, as a young, newly married housewife, I often kept MTV playing throughout the day as I did my morning writing and houehold chores. By this time, the novelty of a 24-hr music video channel had worn off. A lot of people, like myself by that point, kept MTV on simply as background noise; a kind of substitute radio. Those commercials were in constant rotation. I could be mopping the kitchen floor, but I knew the minute I heard the sound of a roaring crowd in the background what was about to ensue. And then would come those first, few notes of Billie Jean (or later, Bad) and Michael’s voice singing, “You’re a whole new generation.” Inevitably, I would feel compelled to stop in the middle of whatever I was doing to watch. If every new Michael Jackson video was a spectacle, so, too, were his Pepsi commercials. You just knew every new commercial that appeared was going to be bigger, bolder, and more dazzling than the one before. And just as with his videos, you never knew what to expect. The storylines were often as creative as his short films; the effects every bit as dazzling, and despite the ever present Pepsi logo and even the blatant insertions of the Pepsi name into the song lyrics, they never really FELT like commercials. They felt like events.
If there was ever an artist who could sell an entire generation on the idea that we somehow belonged to a soda pop brand, it was certainly Michael Jackson!
Nor did it particularly matter to us that Michael himself, who rarely even drank soda (and when he did, ironically enough, preferred Coke) wasn’t a Pepsi drinker. By this time, we were a generation savvy enough to understand the difference between reality and corporate sponsorship. We knew that celebrities didn’t necessarily consume the products they endorsed. Rather, it was all part of clever marketing strategies on the part of artists to sell themselves. Those commercials didn’t necessarily make us run out to buy more Pepsi. But they did keep Michael Jackson as a commodity and as a brand high on our collective radar. And by association, if Michael was cool, then Pepsi must be, too! That, of course, is always the underlying factor of any commercial sponsorship; it’s exactly what the marketing geniuses are hoping for-if you listen to Michael, maybe you’ll think of Pepsi; if you drink Pepsi, you’ll think of Michael. Ultimately, in a hugely succesful advertising campaign as the Pepsi/MJ campaign turned out to be, it becomes a win-win for everyone; hypocrisy be damned
On the Lipstick Alley forum I recently saw a comment from a poster who, like myself, was around in the 80’s when those commercials first aired, and like myself, remembers just how exciting they were! Since I have not asked permission to reprint her quote, I will simply provide the link here and a brief paraphrase. But what she said, in essence, is that a lot of younger people, especially some of those protesting the recent Pepsi campaign as crass exploitation, fail to realize just how inextricably Pepsi and the Bad album were linked throughout the late 80’s. She certainly has a valid point, because the Pepsi campaign was, in fact a massive promotional tool for the Bad album-and one that Michael, as the smart businessman he was, certainly had no qualms about taking full advantage of! So the idea of a Pepsi campaign being used to help promote merchandise for the 25th anniversary of Bad isn’t as if we’re talking strange bedfellows. Rather, we are talking old bedfellows who have been quite cozy and comfortable for a long, long time.
But there is nevertheless a dark side to the partnership, and it is this dark side that taints any excitement over the summer campaign. We know that Michael’s relationship with Pepsi almost cost his life in 1984. Even though he survived that horrific accident, the repercussions of it would forever affect the quality of the rest of his life. And the other troubling question is: Did Pepsi abandon him after the ’93 allegations (despite the fact that no guilt of the crime was ever proven)? If that is the case, then it certainly does cast the long shadow of questionable exploitation and greed over the current campaign.
In regard to the accident Michael suffered during the filming of his first Pepsi commercial in 1984, many fail to understand even now just how serious that accident was. Here, for example, is an article by Jeff Myers that appeared in The Barnstable Patriot in 2009. As a piece that details how the Pepsi partnership with Michael Jackson came to be, and also as a piece that details Michael’s own artistic contributions to the commercials, I was very much enjoying this article until I came to the two boldfaced sentences (my emphasis) that stopped me in my tracks and made me almost too disgusted to read any further:
When Michael Jackson Helped Pepsi “Come Alive”
Written by: Jeff Myers
The Pepsi-MJ relationship included two campaigns. The first, in 1984, was part of the new advertising campaign – The Choice of a New Generation. Pepsi didn’t originally plan to use MJ and his brothers. It started by a visit to our Purchase, NY, headquarters by Don King, the boxing promoter. Few people live up to the phrase “larger than life,” but King did. A huge guy made even bigger by his bizarre hair-do: it stood straight up. He attributed that to God, although we all felt it had more to do with hair products and a comb.
The meeting was short. On one side of a very large and expensive conference room table was a small contingent of Pepsi execs; on the other, King and his large retinue. It was a real study in contrasts. For all its go-go nature in those days, the Pepsi dress code was dark three-piece suits. King’s group look like something out of a bad Hollywood B-movie – very flashy, lots of gold and bright colors. “I can deliver Michael Jackson and his brothers for $5 million,” said King. “Take it or leave it. I’m going to Atlanta tomorrow.”
“Atlanta” was a clear reference to Pepsi’s arch rival, Coca-Cola. Our brilliant CEO, Roger Enrico, asked for a chance to sleep on it. “I’ll call you in the morning with our answer,” he replied. At which point everyone stood up and King gave Enrico – a very short man – a huge hug. Roger had a very shocked look on his face. Everyone thought it was because he was surprised to be in the grasp of that bear of a man. Turns out that hug revealed that King was carrying a gun. (This was a man who went to prison after killing a man.) We knew enough about Coke that they would never hire someone as edgy as MJ. And we were right: Their weak response to this tsunami of popularity was to sign Julio Iglesias. (The press called him Who-lio?)
MJ was an incredibly astute businessperson. Pepsi’s contract with him ran more than 75 pages – security, food requirements, hair and makeup — a long list of items. And he knew every one by heart. Some of the items seemed frivolous to us at the start, but there was ultimately a good reason for each one. He left no detail unaddressed. If a deal point ever came up where there was disagreement or a difference in interpretation, MJ was able to cite it word for word, by page and paragraph number.
We first met MJ at the family home in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley just north of LA. When the Pepsi group arrived the reception included a tour of the house (main floor) and Michael’s budding backyard zoo, including llamas and giraffes. After that, the family gathered in the main room and awaited MJ’s arrival. And waited. When he finally arrived everyone stood up out of respect, including his siblings and lawyer, but not his father, Joe Jackson. They clearly had a very “different” relationship.
At that first meeting, we hoped to discuss the details of the storyboards for the commercials we were planning to shoot in a few weeks. We had forwarded them to MJ and the family in advance of the meeting and everything had been approved in writing. MJ’s input was brief and to the point: (1) I don’t like the storyboards; (2) I don’t like the song (3) you can’t show my face.
The ensuing silence was deafening. Joe Jackson finally chimed in reminding MJ that Pepsi was paying them $5 million and he couldn’t hold back on showing his face. Michael’s rationale was that he doesn’t like the way he looks on television. He preferred showing only his glove, shoes and shades. This dealbreaker for Pepsi was finally resolved by including about two seconds of Michael’s face in each of the two commercials we would shoot.
Another issue – the song – was resolved when Michael volunteered to let us use one of his songs. We were concerned it would be some obscure album-filler, or worse. It turned out to be one of the biggest songs he ever produced: “Billie Jean.” We were dumbstruck by his generosity (which would become famous itself), and our incredible luck. He even wrote some of the new lyrics for it that we would use in the spot.
The first commercial was titled “Street.” In this 60-second ad he would bump into a young MJ-wanna-be played by Alphonso Ribiero, then starring on Broadway in the Tap Dance Kid. It turned out MJ’s instincts were right – less was more. The quick cuts of Michael’s face actually heightened viewer interest. That shoot went smoothly, under the direction of the then-hottest director around, Bob Giraldi. The second commercial was different.
Arguably the most talked about commercial ever, called “Concert,” featured the Jackson 5 on stage in a performance setting. Most of the spot was filmed to an empty theater at the Shrine Auditorium in LA. Under Secret Service-like security, busloads of kids were driven miles to this “undisclosed location.” The final scene to shoot was Michael’s entrance, coming down a set of steps from upstage, pausing for a moment, then moving front and center to join his brothers to sing and dance. Five cameras caught the action. We filmed the scene twice.
When MJ entered, he paused for a moment, as scripted, under an archway at the top of the steps. He made a signature dance move and then moved down the steps to his microphone. As he did, some fireworks were set off in time to the music. When he entered, the screams from the audience were a palpable shock wave that frankly stunned everyone, including MJ. Everything went perfectly; but one take is never enough. On the second take, Michael simply stayed under the archway too long. Milking the audience, he extended his moves as the fireworks went off when they were supposed to. The rest is history and, arguably, helped propel one of the most popular stars (we tried not to refer to him as “hottest” after that) in the world to even greater heights.
The fact is, MJ was not seriously burned. It would be like being at the beach all day with too little SPF sunscreen. But he was burned and it was a serious matter. While the ambulances raced to the scene, we started moving the kids to the buses. MJ was attended to by the on-set nurse and then ultimately bundled up on a stretcher for the ride to the hospital. Ever the showman, knowing that there was an army of media outside this now-disclosed location, he would not go out the door until someone found his famous glove. He put it on his hand – which popped out from under the sheets as the flash bulbs started, becoming one of the most famous waves in Hollywood history.
Pepsi settled the lawsuit with MJ by donating $1.5 million to what would become The Michael Jackson Burn Center at the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City.
Several years later Pepsi and MJ (without the brothers – this was post-Thriller and the brothers were now superfluous) teamed again to create the longest and probably most expensive commercial ever created, a 4:00 spot that was serialized in four segments over the course of several months. It was titled “Chase” (available on YouTube, as are the others) and showed MJ in another concert setting with an intercut story arc of him evading a relentless band of reporters and paparazzi using fantasy-based escapes. All quite predictable for a modern-day Peter Pan who refused to grow up.
Michael had total creative control of the spot that took weeks to shoot and months to edit. Always a perfectionist, he insisted on retakes of various scenes. During that period we were introduced to some of his quirks including his naps in a barium chamber and his new chimp, Bubbles, who everyone got a “chance” to hold. Once again his generosity was evident as he gave Pepsi the use of his song “Bad” for this commercial.
Everyone from music historians to pop psychologists will spend years dissecting Michael’s life. I don’t know if any of the rumors are true. The best way to describe him is to borrow from Winston Churchill: an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by mystery.
Up in my attic somewhere is the jacket he wore in one of the commercials or photo shoot. This may be a good time to try and find it.
For all his good intentions with this piece, those two sentences alone were enough to shoot Meyers’s credibility to hell. The statement that Michael was not seriously burned is blatantly inaccurate; in fact, Michael received severe second and third degree burns that required YEARS of extensive surgery and painful procedures-in fact, he would have died within minutes had it not been for the quick action of Miko Brando and other security personel who immediatly rushed to his aid to put out the blaze. Not to mention, many of the physical repercussions Michael would endure as a direct result of this accident (from permanent hair loss to painkiller addiction) would have a direct bearing on his physical health and self-esteem. And then, to add further insult to injury, Meyers compares this horrific accident to being nothing more serious than a day at the beach with too little SPF suncreen!
WTF? Even someone with as little admitted medical knowledge as myself knows that third degree burns-sustained from having one’s hair and scalp on fire- isn’t something that is remotely comparable to a day at the beach with too little suncreen! And this was written by someone who was supposedly on the scene when it happened! UN-fricking-believable!
The full video that showed the accident in all its horrific detail was released shortly thereafter. I certainly hope Mr. Meyers had an opportunity to see it, and that maybe it helped to change his mind about just how “serious” this accident was! For that matter, everyone who ever had the bad taste to crack jokes about this accident needs to be made to watch it!
Of course, in 1984, a lot of us didn’t realize the full severity of the accident. News reports assured us in the aftermath that Michael was “okay.” The severity of the accident was downplayed primarily for two reasons, one being the understandable desire on the part of Michael’s PR team to keep down fan panic; but the other being the somewhat more self-serving reason on the part of Pepsi, who for obvious reasons wanted to minimize the accident as much as possible.
Most of us, hearing the news on radio or TV but being kept blissfully ignorant of the more gory details, simply heaved a collective sigh of relief that Michael was not seriously hurt. Comedians had carte blanche (or so they thought) to crack jokes on late night TV. Fans went on about their business, little knowing just how seriously Michael was suffering at Brotman Medical Center (Later, Michael would use his $1.5 million settlement from Pepsi to establish the Michael Jackson Burn Center For Children at Brotman). The letter Michael received from then president Ronald Reagen attests to just how little we, the public, knew of the severity of the accident. Note the letter’s very first sentence!
So while it might have been forgiveable to downplay the accident’s seriousness in ’84, it is not now. Yet, as we know from history, the accident did not prevent Michael from maintaining a nearly decade-long partnership with Pepsi. In fact, Michael’s glory years with Pepsi, far from being over, were just getting started!
But perhaps the far more sticky issue when it comes to Pepsi is their pulling of the plug on their sponsorship in 1993.
Jennifer Batten, Michael’s lead guitar player for the Bad and Dangerous tours, tweeted this on May 6th in response to the news of the new Pepsi campaign:
So Pepsi sees fit 2 start marketing MJ now-after turning their backs on him? No end 2 the greed!
However, there does seem to be some dispute and conflicting reports as to just how and why the Pepsi and Michael Jackson partnership ended. In August of 1993, Pepsi spokesman Brad Shaw issued an official statement saying that the company had no intention of terminating its relationship with Michael Jackson, despite the controversy.
Isn’t it lovely when companies manipulate dead celebs to sell us things?
It is sort of creepy to rejuvenate something based on the heyday of someone’s career, knowing that the last years of his life were tortuous. But judging from sold-out ‘Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour’ Cirque du Soleil performances, and millions of dollars forever pouring in from Jackson’s catalog worldwide, Pepsi was right to make its peace with the King of Pop.
“…Michael would have loved that we are making the record books with his image on a billion cans around the world.”http://947thewave.radio.com/2012/05/04/michael-jacksons-estate-teams-up-with-pepsi-to-celebrate-25th-anniversary-of-bad/
But I do agree with one thing Julia Brickley said above, and it is for this one reason that I cannot bring myself to be totally opposed to the idea of one billion Pepsi cans featuring Michael Jackson’s image, emblazoned on grocery store shelves across the globe. She used the interesting phrase of Pepsi “making its peace” with Michael Jackson. This brings up an interesting point. Perhaps, rather than thinking of this as exploitation and hanging onto the bitterness of the past, a better way to look at it might be as a start towards the healing process and the ultimate “rehabilitation” of Michael’s image. I use the term “rehabilitation” lightly (note the quotes) not because I believe it is anything Michael did to deserve the need for rehabilitation of his image, but because we all know what was done to his image -the result of his public lynching. That isn’t going to change overnight. But the paradox is that when we look at the success of ventures like the Cirque du Soleil tour, we know that Michael is still loved-and in a very huge way. And where there is love, there is hope.