Popular music has always relied on corporate patronage. Despite protracted cultural debates about music’s commercial and artistic imperatives, particularly during rock’s postwar alignment with youth culture and indie’s end-of-the-millennium shift from business model to aesthetic sensibility, sponsorship and promotional support has bolstered musicians’ work as recording artists and touring acts since vaudeville and the advent of the phonograph.
In this vein, in Soda Goes Pop: Pepsi-Cola Advertising and Popular Music, musicologist Joanna K. Love uses Pepsi to demonstrate how integral pop music has been to advertising since the company’s “Nickel, Nickel” jingle became the first to receive nationwide radio airplay in 1938. Drawing upon musical analysis, cultural theory, trade discourse, and robust archival research, Love posits that “corporate advertising’s relationship with popular music has depended on piggybacking on the latter industry’s aesthetics” (19). She develops this claim through a sustained application of “redaction,” cultural theorist John Hartley’s concept for synthesizing new material from pre-existing sources, to three phases of Pepsi’s industrial history. First, she analyzes how Pepsi capitalized in the 1960s on its earlier success with radio advertising by using pop jingles to attract teenage consumers and distinguish itself from its competitors and then reframing this strategy through nostalgia in a 2002 commercial with spokeswoman Britney Spears delivering a time-traveling medley of the company’s various campaigns. Second, she investigates Pepsi’s response to neoliberalism and MTV’s assent during the 1980s by building immersive spectacles around pop stars. She concludes with an examination of Pepsi’s marketing strategies at the turn of the twenty-first century, which increasingly relied upon humor, nostalgia, and convergence.
Love’s biggest contribution is her assertion that Pepsi’s use of telegenic pop stars during the 1980s “modeled the potential of the new neoliberal individual” both to consumers and to the recording industry. (88) In this section, she focuses on Pepsi’s recruitment of Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, David Bowie, and Madonna as spokespeople in order to demonstrate how corporate sponsorship “allowed artists to achieve the heightened levels of exposure necessary for boosting album and tour sales in an increasingly saturated and fast-paced neoliberal economy that demanded constant innovation” (87). Redaction was foundational to these pop stars’ endorsement work, as many of them allowed their hit songs to be modified into jingles for glossy campaigns that mimicked music video’s visual language and often premiered during popular televised events such as the Super Bowl or the Grammys in exchange for iconicity.
For Love, Jackson most fully embodies neoliberalism’s potential by using his lucrative multi-year Pepsi contract to subsidize his transformation from child star to the King of Pop, along with its messy ramifications. It is in these passages of the book, which compare Jackson’s two “The Choice of a New Generation” campaigns, where Love most effectively deploys her skill at close reading. Pepsi built its 1984 campaign around a redaction of Thriller’s “Billie Jean.” These spots “sp[u]n Jackson’s taboo tale of promiscuity, paternity, and betrayal into an acclaimed soda-sipping anthem” by “encod[ing] Pepsi’s commodity into the pop star’s pre-existing texts and symbols” (60) in order to construct synonymy between endorsee and product—despite the fact that Jackson did not drink soda. This was accomplished by Jackson lending Pepsi totems of his celebrity “in exchange for four total seconds of face time, one close-up, and only one of his iconic dance spins” (68) and “by isolating the musical features that fans had the most potential to recognize,” like the opening groove and bass line, while omitting the song’s cryptic verses (80).
The 1987-1988 campaign, which supported Jackson’s Bad, used a redacted version of the album’s title track to highlight his reinvention as an edgy superstar through an elaborate action serial in which the pop star hid from and escaped his fans, thereby “mov[ing] the American advertising industry to the brink of its transition away from jingles and toward today’s commonplace practice of incorporating whole sections of the latest tracks in commercials” (124). But Love acknowledges synergy’s disorderliness, too, noting that Bad’s delayed release “forc[ed] the brand to postpone the air dates of the commercials until almost a year and a half after announcing the deal” (122). Furthermore, an unintended consequence of such exposure might be the creation of allowance structures for celebrity misconduct. Former child actor James Safechuck poignantly raised this issue in Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland when disclosing his history of sexual abuse by Jackson, who he alleges began grooming him on the set of a Pepsi commercial.1
An aspect of Pepsi’s engagement with pop music that warrants deeper scrutiny is Pepsi’s continued alignment with female stars, particularly after the company’s public relations crisis over Madonna’s “Make a Wish” campaign, which is Love’s most compelling case study. In 1989, Pepsi signed a $5 million contract with the pop star to promote her fourth album, Like a Prayer, and sponsor its tour. The nostalgic TV ad, which featured Madonna switching places with her younger self while watching home movies of her childhood birthday party, used an unaltered version of the album’s title track ahead of its release on radio as part of her licensing agreement with Pepsi. The brand’s associations with “Like a Prayer,” however, became a liability after MTV debuted its controversial music video, which dramatized Madonna’s struggle to exonerate a black man falsely accused of assault while falling for him and included loaded images of Santería, burning crosses, and stigmata, resulting in Pepsi pulling the ad and rescinding its tour support. Love argues that the campaign was a failed redaction because Madonna’s unwillingness to change the song’s lyrics illustrated “how unwieldy musical signifiers could be when not adequately manipulated to fit branding aims” (174), noting that Pepsi replaced her with soul singer Ray Charles in order to restore its image.
While I am convinced by Love’s claim that “Make a Wish” is a failed redaction, Pepsi’s brief partnership with Madonna ultimately influenced how both the company and its subsequent spokeswomen used each other to present progress and nostalgia as lucrative symbols of feminine ebullience. Love nods to this phenomenon by arguing that Spears’s “Now and Then” ad positions the pop star as an extension of the brand’s legacy by having her reanimate several campaigns, but she ignores “Make a Wish” when discussing the slogans, jingles, and placements that were purposefully redacted for the ad. This omission is significant, as Madonna was a major influence on Spears’s sexy persona and kinetic performance style. Furthermore, Spears’s endorsement deal was facilitated by a teen pop resurgence aided by the Spice Girls, a British girl group whose members grew up idolizing Madonna and patterned themselves after the savvy pop star by signing with Pepsi in 1997 to finance their first international tour. And Janelle Monáe’s retro-themed “Joy of Dance” spot featured the performer dancing to Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Like a Prayer’s second single, while channeling the older performer’s “boy toy” look with a bustier, tulle skirt, and wide-brimmed hat. While “Like a Prayer” might be redacted from the brand’s institutional memory, its heretical performer’s legacy lives on in many of the female pop stars who have endorsed the brand since the “Make a Wish” debacle.
Furthermore, Love concludes the book by suggesting that “Pepsi-Cola advertising has shifted from using popular music to sell soda to using soda to sell popular music” (231). This claim may very well apply to Beyoncé, one of the twenty-first century’s biggest pop stars, who replaced Spears as a Pepsi spokeswoman in the early 2000s. In 2012, Beyoncé returned to the company and signed a $50 million contract that stipulated funding for her various creative projects.2 In other words, Pepsi may have helped subsidize the production of the Beyoncé and Lemonade visual albums, as well as the Tidal streaming service and the Ivy Park clothing line. Thus, it will be incumbent upon others to locate and analyze how advertising adapts to pop music marketing in the streaming era’s digital economy as industrial convergence becomes harder to detect. Soda Goes Pop crafts a vivid and useful cultural history of pop music and advertising’s growing mutual dependency. Love makes a persuasive case for how Pepsi’s productive and reductive impulses at once generated new music and forced endorsers’ output to conform with commercial marketing imperatives. She also invites future popular music scholars to inquire about what else the recording industry is selling.
Dan Reed. Leaving Neverland. (HBO films, 2019).
Ben Sisario, “In Beyoncé Deal, Pepsi Focuses on Collaboration.” New York Times, 10 December 2012.