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The science of selling out

Still from Iggy Pop swiftcover ad
Fore! Iggy Pop swings - and misses - in the Swiftcover advert

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Magazine

Iggy Pop's endorsement of car insurance has prompted accusations of selling out. But does anyone really care any more?

As the flailing, wild-eyed frontman of US garage-rock band The Stooges, Iggy Pop helped pioneer punk long before the Sex Pistols.

His solo career is approaching its fifth decade. Live, he's earned a reputation as one of rock's most exciting performers, with a frame that's not so much athletic as freakish.

So why is one of rock's most iconic rebels now selling car insurance on TV? Will we ever be able to listen to his music in the same way again? Or are we now inured to the fact that at some point our cultural heroes are going to turn round and exhort us to buy, buy, buy?

As the new face of insurers Swiftcover, Pop writhes and gyrates like a toddler after too much red cordial, declaring that what he's really selling isn't car insurance but "time", a confusion that will no doubt be cleared up when he cashes the cheque.

Some of Pop's more faithful fans have not taken well to this. An army of possibly now ex-supporters have vented their spleen on music message boards and blogs. Posters featuring his ads have been defaced with the words "sell-out", the ultimate insult.

Compromising integrity

"Selling out" is a phrase that has come to haunt many a politician, public figure or entertainer. It's the perfect description to tar those seen to compromise their integrity in favour of money, power or mainstream acceptance.

John Lydon, the occasional frontman of punk pioneers The Sex Pistols, caused many an old punk to splutter at the television when he appeared plugging Country Life butter last year. Comedian Denis Leary - who had become a cult star in the US with a rant-driven stream of black comedy - annoyed some of his fans with his endorsement of Holsten Pils lager. And Sting has still not recovered from agreeing to front a smug promo for Jaguar.

But is this just a generational thing? Would fans of Pete Doherty take such exception seeing him selling cough medicine or train tickets? If Amy Winehouse was unveiled as the new face of a coffee brand, would the sales of her next album plummet?

Bill Hicks
Bill Hicks: "If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever"

Acerbic American comedian Bill Hicks summed up a hardcore view that chimed with an anti-consumerist niche in the 80s: "If you do an advert then you are off the artistic register forever."

Hicks died of cancer, aged 32, before even having the chance to tarnish this zero-tolerance stance by endorsing financial services, but that philosophy hasn't died with him.

In the entertainment world, "sell-out" has also crystallised around an independent, anti-major label stance of bands born out of the punk and new wave scene of the late 1970s.

In the 1980s, amid the culture of conspicuous consumption, indie musicians regarded any overt attempts to be successful as compromising rigid ideals about artistic integrity. These included avoiding being signed to a mainstream label and refusing to take part in activities seen as crass and overly commercial, like making expensive videos.

What makes us accuse our heroes of selling out? Why do we feel they have abused our support?

For writer Zoe Williams, the Iggy Pop ads are not a concern because, crucially, she is not a fan - his insurance endorsement isn't interfering with any memories she has of buying Raw Power or going to see him in concert. This is part of the mix - we have to some kind of relationship with the artist in question in order to be disappointed or betrayed.

But, she says: "If Morrissey was on an ad, that would appal me. It's not that he's as pure as the driven snow, but there's a kind of integrity. He's a commercial refusenik." And, crucially, she's a fan.

REBEL SELL
John Lydon
John Lydon Country Life (pictured)
Denis Leary Holsten Pils
Lou Reed Honda scooters
Black-Eyed Peas Pepsi
Mitchell & Webb Apple Mac

Journalist and author Andrew Mueller says we bring our own personal feelings to the art we love, and react badly to it being treated lightly.

"I think consumers object to their favourite songs being used in ads less out of any sense that the artistic integrity of the work is being tarnished, more out of a sense of ownership.

"We love songs because they remind us of someone/something, and it's annoying when we find ourselves having no choice but to associate them with bathroom freshener."

Those accused of "selling out" are sometimes also called "whores". Williams says: "Calling someone a prostitute is incredibly offensive because we feel sex is sacred. I think art is similar."

Williams was unhappy at the Mac and PC ads in 2007 starring Peep Show comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb - arguing that comedians earn our trust with their routines and humour. "Comedy is intimate; it turns on qualities we share, not those we can only admire," she wrote then.

To Williams, Webb and Mitchell have sold out because she identifies almost too readily with them. "It's a bunch of middle-class people with exactly my education and opportunities. And they probably didn't get paid that much for it."

This is art that has always been mixed with commerce
Michael Berube

American academic Michael Berube tackled the subject in an essay called Cultural Criticism and the Politics of Selling Out.

He came to the subject with something more than just an academic interest - in the 80s he was a fan of hardcore US bands such as Husker Du, who were accused of selling out when they signed to a mid-size record label. Many of their fans refused to listen to subsequent records.

With music, he says, "this is art that has always been mixed with commerce". But like many counter-cultures, the music scene that created artists like Pop began with an uncommercial edge that only gradually filtered into the mainstream. "They had no idea this was ever going to be incredibly successful."

Mr Berube may live in Pennsylvania but thanks to the internet he has seen the ads, and says they cause a serious "ick reaction".

Iggy Pop in 2007
Would you buy car insurance from this man?

The ads, Mr Berube says, feature cognitive dissonance - where something attempts to balance contradictory ideas. "Here's Iggy Pop, shirtless, haggard, and he's concerned about putting his papers down too."

He adds: "The line about 'selling time' - it's a guilty conscience. And at the end he yells 'Get a life' with the anarchist symbol. Anyone who knows that symbol sees how jarring that is."

He laughs. "If I ran into Iggy Pop at an intersection, I would hope he had car insurance, though."

Modern audiences may immune to the shock though. "I wonder if people now don't just expect it to be business as usual," Mr Berube suggests.

Marketing analyst Craig Smith agrees. "There are so many more commercial aspects to what any given celebrity does these days. They're promoted and marketed and advertised to an inch of their lives. I don't think people now are surprised to see their heroes appear in an ad."

Artists develop, mature, their edges get softened, and they wake up one day fretting that they haven't saved enough for their retirement. All the while, their fans often hang on to an idealistic memory.

But if an ad agency suddenly wants to attach their one-time rebel yell to car insurance, or holidays to Australia, should we judge them?

As the recession bites and sales of music plummet, Pop's decision may not look so out of place. And the term sell out may lose some of its sting.


Send us your comments using the form below.

The mistake people are making is to think that these people are artists who had any integrity in the first place. The popular music industry is what it says: an industry. They are all only interested in money and popular music fans are their suckers. Face the facts!
Kant for King, London

I couldn't care less whether it is considered a sell-out or not I find this particular advert just another example of a wide range of deeply irritating and/or inane examples currently being foisted onto our TV screeens. They have been totally effective in only one way - putting me off even considering using or buying the product(s) concerned.
Iain, Leighton Buzzard

I'm sure Iggy Pop would advertise dustbin liners if the money was right. Though i wish he'd keep his shirt on. Watching his body and muscles contort the way they do on the telly is slightly off putting though!
Michael, Leamington Spa

This is compounded by the amount of times the advert is shown. If you watch an evening of television on Sky, you'll see Mr Pop at the start and end of every advert break. I defy even an avid fan to appreciate the icon after such bombardment. Oh, and of course I will never use the car insurance site because of their advert.
alex@centurymedia.co.uk, Exeter

I'm not so much worried about Iggy 'selling out' as the awful advert he chose to do it in. At least when Dylan was in a Victoria's Secret ad it was nicely done (and and attractive girls in). I thought Iggy would have more taste!
Matt, Nottingham

I am a member of some market research panels. Months ago I received an invitation to a survey about advertising. It was about the Iggy Pop ad. I was so shocked to see him prancing around selling insurance that I completed that survey in a daze. I clearly remember, though, my last reply in the "any further comments" box. I said I was shocked and appalled at seeing Iggy Pop stooping so low as to sell out. I still can't believe it, and I'm not even a big fan!
EV, London, N4

Bill Hicks was right. It's OK if you're a struggling actor but someone like Iggy Pop really doesn't need the money. Adverts like this only put me off products and artists.
Duncan Graham, Newcastle upon Tyne

Who wouldn't want to earn a few extra hundred thousand for a few hours' work? True fans shouldn't care - his music is still the same as it ever was. If other 'fans' are so put out then listen to some other musician who hasn't chosen commercial success over musical passion... if you can find one.
Bob, Oxford, UK

Rather than criticise Iggy for "selling out", perhaps we should respect him for taking 40 years longer than most other people.
Mark, Gloucester, UK

Yes and No. Yes - he could've chosen a more ethical product. No - it's not as heart breaking as seeing the wonderful Tommy Stinson playing Bass for Guns and Roses.
James, London, England

I listen to The Stooges to escape from the tedious realities of buying car insurance and The Sex Pistols to escape from the depressing banality of toast. Now, however, my escape is tainted by leakage from the real world.
Ben Hoyle, Wood Green

When it comes to people of stature like Iggy and Lydon they owe no-one an explanation. They've got the scars for their art- why not make some money?
del, glasgow

He can sell whatever he likes as far as i'm concerned however could he please do it with a shirt on. His advert gets switched off so there is no chance we would buy the car insurance. If you need to use a semi-naked man can't it be one that doesn't need ironing and no i'm not a 20 something i'm in my 40's .
Mrs G, Grays Essex England

Lydon sold out years ago. It is upsetting that he's completely undermined the messages in his early recordings and has no doubt become what he set out to destroy. I guess we all become middle aged and forget what we belieived in when we were teenagers. I very much doubt that either Iggy or Lydon need the money as both the Pistols and the Stooges have been filling concert halls for the last few years on their nostalgia tours. I splashed out to see both in London in the last couple of years and Iggy was miles better than his overweight cousins from London. Those punk rock 'stars' who haven't sold out probably don't have sprawling 10 acre mansions in Los Angeles. Good on them.
Mark Tombs, Bristol

Also currently guilty are Ringo Star, Alice Cooper, Bruce Willis and others in those insuferable Norwich Union re-branding adverts. Kerching!
Philip Jones, London

Yeah, it was a bit disconcerting at first to Iggy Pop advertising car insurance, but come on people - the guy is getting on at bit now and needs some financial security for his retirement - I certainly don't hold that against him. I might have taken a dimmer view if he had done this when he was younger however.
Jon Alsbury, London, UK

Let's ask Bob Dylan about his Victoria's Secret advert...
Candace, New Jersey, US

We hate it when our friends become successful. As long as the person in question hasn't previously been anti-corporate or is known for bashing those who do advertising, then it's a person making a living. Stop listening to their records if you please, but you have already brought them so the money is in their pockets and you are just depriving yourself.
Jim Emery, London

No one cares when commercial or "Professional" celebrities do this, we expect it. If one of the girls from girls aloud appears in an advert for anything, no one would blink an eye. Its when counter-culture personalities abandon the coutner culture and use their fame to hawk mainstream products that we disconnect. Even then, it can be done ironically and reasonably without effect. Anyone remember Lemmy from Motorhead playing a violin in an advert, or Alice Cooper having a cosy evening in with Ronnie Corbet? These two worked because they exploit the counter-culture nature of the stars to comic effect. If an advert was just lemmy flogging home loans by trying to convince us it is METAL! then we be sickened. Iggy Pop has absolutely no connection to car insurance. The only reason he is in the advert is because of his fame. Thats what we object to.
Gribblethemunchkin, Manchester, UK

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