Times are a changin’ – but in what direction?

I am a son of the advertising business.  The year I was born, my father was a senior writer  working for Guy Day in Los Angeles prior to the 1968 merger with Jay Chiat that would produce the industry powerhouse known as Chiat/Day and is now known as TBWAChiat/Day. In the late 1960s, my father’s contemporaries in general, and Chiat/Day in particular, represented a revolutionary generation of advertising professionals who changed the game demonstrably from the world we see fictionalized in the hit show Mad Men. Up to about the mid-1960s, a job in the ad business was often a favor granted to young, white, protestant men by old, white, protestant men, who generally had few talents beyond the art of the three-martini lunch. By the 1970s, the ad business had diversified culturally and geographically beyond the aeries and saloons of New York and Chicago, and with this came a renaissance in which writers, art directors, and filmmakers all took creative risks that were unthinkable just a decade before.

d046472bf2477f706780aaa1a5d8246bSo, what are we to make of this campaign?  Does it represent the visionary legacy of the agency just keeping in step with our digital times? Or is it a reversion to the days of old-boy networks selling Lucky Strikes in the schoolyard? One thing it is not — is  terribly creative.

For the next couple of weeks, Times Square will include among its multi-million-dollar outdoor placements, a stark display headlined by the declaration Piracy is Progress.  This provocative lead is justified by the pretense that it is merely a benign attention-getter inviting “artists” to a website where they can vote Yay or Nay on the question of whether piracy as a good or bad thing.  The campaign itself is claimed to be the concept of the band Ghost Beach as a means to “stimulate discussion” on the issue, and the agency of record is TBWA Chiat/Day. But let’s guess that there’s no way Ghost Beach is paying for the campaign alone, if at all, especially the quarter ton of raw bullion it costs to buy space in Times Square.  So, who is paying for the campaign to declare that piracy is progress on the world’s largest ad stage? Chris Castle is dead right to call the headline Orwellian, and I have to say that the brain warp induced by an encounter with this particular sampling of Newspeak jostles a not-too-distant memory of an award-winning TV commercial for Apple Computer based on 1984 and produced by…guess which agency? Well, one must roll with the times, I suppose, and maybe Big Brother is cool now.

The fraud in this campaign barely warrants discussion, as I think it would be obvious that the online poll question about piracy is exclusively a diversion being used to sell one particular answer (and maybe a few Ghost Beach albums). I’ll give the guys at TWBAChiat/Day this much:  it is the quintessential ad for our times — creatively facile, a careless abuse of a complex issue, and shrouded in the guise of phony populism. It is exemplary of the worst in communications in the digital age in that it pretends to invite participation, pretends to ask what you think while telling you exactly what you should think. And let’s not spend too much time considering how absurd it is to claim that an online poll can invite one particular group to participate and then state with any accuracy that these are the people responding.  Here’s a random Tweet from one “artistforpiracy”:  Any artist that disagrees I would love to hear why you prefer record labels ruining your music instead.  In other words, more of the same hackneyed presumptions from people who don’t make art for a living and have no idea what they’re talking about.

When I was in my early teens, I remember asking my father if there were any clients he wouldn’t pursue — by this time he was running his own L.A. agency with an art-director partner he met at Chiat/Day — and his one-word answer was, “Cigarettes.”  Interestingly enough, in a 2004 Adweek Interview with TBWAChiat/Day’s current Chief Creative Officer, Mark Figliulo, was asked the same question, to which he replied, “The George W. Bush campaign.”  Fair enough, and I guess I can count Mr. Figliulo as a fellow progressive; but then I’m confused by the failure of social responsibility here. After all, Mark Figliulo has done a lot of really solid, creative work in his career, even directing some of his own TV spots or working with talents like Spike Jonze on commercials for Miller Lite.  It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to think that professionals like Figliulo and his creative team fail to consider the intricate relationship between their own careers and those of artists and rights holders, who might choose not to be exploited.  Just as one obvious example, Miller Lite has a pretty strong brand association with the NFL, and last I checked, those guys are rather serious about protecting their broadcasting rights from piracy.

Whoever paid for this campaign is probably a very attractive client, and maybe the short money says screw the artists. On the other hand, maybe the creative team at TBWAChiat/Day really do believe they’re on the leading edge of the next renaissance.  I don’t presume to know their minds, but I do have to say this campaign has all the integrity and cleverness of “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.”

See follow-up article here.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • David, great back story from the ad agency perspective. I have forwarded this post to all my artists’ rights friends and allies.

    If you’re reading this, I suggest you do the same with your networks.

    Great work my friend.

  • Find who fronted the cash for the adspace, and things will become clear.
    I have a guess, but that’s not helpful.
    Extra points for extrapolating the timing of this ‘campaign’.

  • Great article and thanks for writing it.
    I assume there’s no admission charge for Ghost Beach shows. I assume that this ad agency did the art & copy work for free, and the space for it was provided at no charge. After all, fair is fair and if recordings of music should be free….why not everything else? If not then these “pirates” are simply hypocrites.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Admittedly, the site artistsvsartists offers the voter a choice between buying or freely downloading GB’s new album, but this is a gimmick pretending to be social research. That is if it’s anything at all.

  • Thank you for this, David, especially your recollections of ad agencies (I’m a fan of MAD MEN, even though I thought the show would never appeal to me). It is unsettling to see something like the “Piracy is Progress” billboard, but perhaps it’s just one more thing the free culture movement has trotted out to defend their position. That’s just my take on it.

  • In 1971 “Steal This Book” sold more than quarter of a
    million copies. I bought one. Somehow marketing and our culture
    survived. Mr. Newhoff is either a plant working for TBWAChiat/Day
    (unlikely, but I wouldn’t know about this provocation but for Mr.
    Newhoff’s humorless and inaccurate screed) or a hyperbolic old fart
    who needs a mirror to see who is guilty of “hackneyed presumptions
    from people who don’t make art for a living.”

    • I’m rather surprised that, among all the comments ever posted to this blog, one of the more careless and ad hominem critiques comes from a professor in the creative arts and who writes a blog about related issues. The notion that I started this blog last August as a plant of TBWAChiat/Day so that I could write this particular post this week is almost as ridiculous as comparing Steal This Book to anything going on in contemporary online piracy. Moreover, the hackneyed presumption refers specifically to people like the one cited who use the old “record labels screw artists” mantra to justify enterprise-scale theft. As professional creators point out repeatedly, the deal between an artist and an investor (that’s what a label or studio of any size is) is his business and his choice. And how screwed artists do or do not feel by those who invest in their works through advances and other forms of compensation covers a very broad range of possibilities, none of which justify wholesale exploitation by consumers, advertisers, or the facilitating site owners.

    • David, getting a lot of great feedback on your post, the story is an important one, thanks for covering it.

      Couldn’t help but notice the comment from Mr. finch. Sounds personal, do you know him? I find language so fascinating, words like screed and rant are kind of the FU of journalists, er bloggers.

      Anyway, my interest was peaked by Mr. Finch, so I visited his blog, apparently he is attending the Hong Kong Film Festival. Now there’s a hotbed of piracy, but they do it the old fashioned way there selling forged DVDs. I must say, it looked kind of lonely over on “his” blog; well he got me to visit, anyway.

      I guess it was his rant.

      • Thanks again, Will. I responded to Mr. Finch as you see, but I was also surprised by the word “screed,” which is a dog-eared pejorative popular among bloggers usually younger than I, let alone Mr. Finch. If he were to read the lion’s share of comments here, he’d see that thoughtful disagreement is more than welcome, especially from people with his CV and life experience. I think I’ve stated repeatedly that the overarching goal of this blog is to question and not to presume to have all the answers. If my post on this campaign is provocative, let it provoke an actual defense of its goals, principles, and methodology; and I’m all ears. If my post really is nothing more than “humorless and inaccurate,” I would think someone like Professor Finch wouldn’t waste a syllable on it. So, I am likewise intrigued and confused by a comment from a credentialed and learned man that sounds like every generic grumble from any kid with smartphone and a pair of thumbs.

      • Based on my experience of the good prof. and his contributions to the debate, it’s very much his “thing”. Do not underestimate the power of an academic with an axe to grind, David.

  • Hell yes the agency that created the campaign, especially a high profile one, does need to be accountable for their work. All in all this is unravelling as a fascinating story.

    Whose behind it, who paid for it and most importantly, what’s the motivation.

  • Can you make it, I want to interview you about “Pirate Square” today. Interview today, FarePlay Radio 4:00 PM EST Today. willbuckley@mac.com

  • After the initial hoopla about this started popping up on the net I decided to go check out the billboard myself (I work nearby). I have to admit, it kind of pissed me off. But, to be fair, the billboard isn’t static, it switches between other ads, and the “Piracy is Progress” changes to opposing slogans like, “Piracy is Theft” and other similar variations on the phrase, both for and against the notion.

    I’m sure a lot of the following info has been dug up by Chris Castle, but to add to the discussion for any one who isn’t following the story so closely, this is what I’ve been able to deduce: the band Ghost Beach is pretty small by typical “Brooklyn” standards, as in they don’t have a huge web presence and are mostly off the radar of blogs like BrooklynVegan, P4K, GvsB, et al. From my perspective, however, they are little different than many of the thousand other typical Brooklyn acts (The use of both “ghost” and “beach” in the name is not only incredibly cliche for the scene, it’s also a few years behind the times). Apparently, American Eagle approached them about using one of their songs, “Miracle,” in a marketing campaign, in exchange for which they were given access to the billboard above the Times Square store. The claimed value of the placement is ~$50,000, according to AE. I will also assume that they were paid for whatever sync license was required as well. Some people are incorrectly reporting that the band was paid $50,000 for a sync, which is ludicrously high in this day and age; the value of the ad space is 50K. The sync license fee was probably negotiated for a much, MUCH lower rate. I doubt it would have been more than four figures, if that, but I’m no expert, merely speaking from experiences with other musicians who have been in on similar deals.

    I’m not sure exactly when Chiat/Day gets involved. I doubt AE sprang for the budget to hire that firm, so we’ll have to wait and see where the purse strings lead. Perhaps Mr. Newhoff could shed some light on how dealing with a firm like TBWA/Chiat/Day would have transpired? Assuming someone with connections put the firm and the band together in the first place, would the band have approached them with this idea, and Chiat/Day would have “made it happen,” or is it more likely that the firm came up with the approach, and the band simply gave their approval? Forgive me, most of my knowledge about how advertising works is primarily gleaned from Madmen and what little I can remember from a kooky college English professor who loved nothing more than to waste our loan money by ripping on Madison Avenue for hours.

    • The general answer is that I have no way of knowing how much of whose money went into whose hands, and while I think that component of the story is relevant (e.g. is there a party whose larger interests are served here?), it is of course only a part of this post. I’ve seen reports that Chiat/Day did the work pro bono, which raises questions as to why this campaign would be a freebie when it unquestionably helps the pro-piracy agenda of Silicon Valley, which has a few bucks to spend. Or do the folks at CD really consider this a public service? If so, boy can I think of more deserving issues. Your reference to the fact that Ghost Beach is small is just one of the very odd aspects of this whole thing. If I REALLY wanted to create a campaign that earnestly digs into this issue, I’d want to use a band or two with a little more skin the game (i.e. at least a decade or so of experience in all aspects of the business). So, as with anything, I try to consider people’s motivations including the possibility of altruism; but this particular one is just strange. Regardless of how much this whole thing costs, I think the investigative question is “Who benefits?” That said, I don’t know about the $50k number when it can cost literally that much just to erect a small segment scaffolding in NYC. No matter what, that isn’t the value of that real estate on Times Square even if someone let this campaign have it at a special price, which goes back to motivation.

      As for the mechanics of how a big agency like this ends up doing the work, it can be so many things. There could be a third party footing the bill or who is already such a big client of the agency that this becomes a smart thing to do for broad, strategic reasons. I’m not saying this is the case, but Google could so easily be the 900lb gorilla behind the entire thing, and there are few agencies in the world that would turn down a piece of that pie. Or it really is an AE campaign. We’ll see if Chris keeps following the money.

      You’re right that the billboard is not static; but I would still argue that the campaign is falsely asking for engagement while promoting a position. Anyone deeply involved in this subject knows where public sentiment stands right now, but that doesn’t make the conclusions of the “majority” well-founded. And this particular campaign is a glib way to address a very serious issue. Twenty years ago, if this campaign asked the question “Same-sex Marriage – Vote Yes or No” and it were a real reflection of national, public sentiment, we would have seen a much larger percentage of Nos than we would today (and it would offend the GLTB community with the same glibness). In other words, complex issues take time to become functional policy; and people need to learn to relate to others who are affected by a condition before rendering an honest judgment. Hence, this campaign at this time can only have the result of promoting piracy to a public that really doesn’t understand the issue.

    • Thanks for the distilled version, Patrik, it answers a
      couple of questions I had about the whole affair (and raises a few
      more). Based on what you wrote, I am kind of willing to admit that
      in this case a cigar might just be a cigar. If
      the ad space rental was part of a licencing deal, it would answer
      the question of “where does a band nobody’s ever heard of get the
      kind of dosh to put stuff up on what is likely the world’s most
      expensive outdoor ad space?” It doesn’t explain the C/D
      involvement, however. If they did the work pro bono, one must
      wonder just why exactly would they have chosen
      to do this particular campaign for nada and whether they’d be
      willing to go on record with their reason. If not, the hanging
      question is who paid them, ‘coz I’m guessing
      it’s a pretty penny, too. The other thing I was wondering about was
      Ghost Beach’s motivation in doing the thing in the first place.
      Certainly, if I had the kind of money this
      would cost, I’d spend it on getting product out there, or at least
      promoting said product. I wouldn’t spend it on “starting a
      conversation about piracy” – or any such tripe – ‘coz let’s face
      it: given the cost, that’s a vanity project only people with money
      to burn can afford. Assuming that Ghost Beach didn’t end up paying
      anything (for whatever reason; I think it’s a fairly safe
      assumption, since they’re unlikely to be able to afford it in any
      case) I could kind of see them thinking that using a “social” and
      “cultural” issue like piracy for their promotional campaign might
      be a better idea that “Hi, we’re Ghost Beach, check out our music.”
      It has certainly gotten their name out there, but as Cynical
      Musician I’d point out to them that such campaign’s seldom
      translate into profile growth – people will be talking about them,
      sure, but very few of those people will bother checking out what
      they do, because – frankly – it’s completely irrelevant to what
      they are currently notable for. Summing up, I
      could see this as a misguided attempt to
      become a talking point by a band who’ve found themselves with an
      unexpected advertising bounty on their hands (if you’re given a
      billboard as payment, you’ll have to put
      something on it), but knowing what we know, we
      cannot discount the possibility that there’s a false bottom in the
      whole affair (as we say in Poland) – especially so long as the C/D
      involvement remains a bit of a mystery.

      • Thanks as always, Faza, for adding your thoughts. Looking at Ghost Beach’s motivation here, I am reminded of another rule my father used to preach to employees and students — that good advertising can only sell a bad product one time. This campaign may put GB on the map, but not for long if people don’t like or even sample their music. They also run the risk of becoming lost in the kerfuffle over the issue. Two years from now, people might remember the Times Square piracy campaign and say, “What was that band associated with it?” The thing is that a concept like this can originate anywhere (e.g. a junior copywriter who lives in Brooklyn and is a friend of the band brings it into the office), but you can bet the shoe money that promoting the band itself is not the primary goal here. In fact, I’m about to post some more food for thought on this subject.

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