There aren’t too many benefits to being an English major type – extra zeroes on your paycheck sure ain’t one of them – but we take our kicks where we can get them, and being self-congratulating and superior when someone misinterprets something literary is one of them. So in this post, I’m going to shame some companies that totally missed the point when it came to using a book, poem or song in their advertising campaigns.
And as long as we’re clearing up misconceptions? “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” doesn’t mean “Where are you, Romeo,” it means “Why are you named Romeo?” Now you know.
Brooks Brothers & The Great Gatsby: So Money
With Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby opening this weekend, various Gatsby-themed advertising tie-ins are all over the place, most focused on the glamour of the roaring '20s rather than the themes of the novel, as hilariously noted by Zachary M. Seward in a piece called “Did anyone actually read The Great Gatsby?” Case in point: this Brooks Brothers ad for “The Gatsby Collection”:
As Seward points out:
The full Daisy Buchanan quote is actually, “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.” She says it during one of the novel’s most famous scenes, as Gatsby, trying rather clumsily to impress Daisy with his wealth, flings his fine clothing across his bedroom. Daisy’s meaning is ambiguous, but the line is certainly not included as a sartorial endorsement.
Like so much of the novel, it’s really more a condemnation of empty wealth, status symbology, and meaningless excess. Taken as a whole, the novel denounces the culture that Brooks Brothers celebrates—one critic called it "a cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream." Way to miss the point, guys. “It’s like throwing a Lolita-themed children’s birthday party,” Seward writes.
“Pink Houses,” “Born in the U.S.A.” & Other Not-So-Patriotic Theme Songs
John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” may include the line “Ain’t that America” in its chorus, but it’s hardly a celebration of traditional American values. It’s kind of about poverty and broken dreams. To boot, Mellencamp is a vocal supporter of progressive politics, so it was a pretty weird choice when John McCain used the song during political events for his 2008 presidential campaign. Later, the song was used again by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) at events opposing same-sex marriage. On both occasions, Mellencamp informed them that his own political views were antithetical to theirs, and that the song did not support their message.
Similarly, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” has often been interpreted as a patriotic anthem, but it’s actually a lament for the devastation of the Vietnam war. He has been offered endorsement deals from Ronald Reagan and the Chrysler Corporation, but pointedly refused them both.
One more political example: Rick Santorum using a variation on a Langston Hughes line on his website. In the poem, Hughes writes: “There's never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” Again, not sure that really supports Santorum’s political agenda.
This reminds me of people playing “Every Breath You Take” by the Police at their weddings – it’s about obsessive, stalker-style surveillance, not unconditional love!
Missing the Irony in “The Road Not Taken”
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” may be the most misunderstood poem in the history of the English language. Its final lines, quoted out of context, are almost always taken to be a celebration of individuality: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” But in the context of the poem, those lines are spoken with irony. The poem begins with the speaker admitting that the two paths before him look pretty much the same – but later in life, he’ll probably end up justifying whichever decision he makes as being vitally important.
I’m willing to bet Frost’s lines have been misused in dozens of small marketing campaigns over the years; one of the biggest was a Monster.com campaign that ran during the Super Bowl in 2000. The campaign was supposed to “reinforce Monster.com's core mission [of] pursuing and achieving a fulfilling career path for everyone.” Good news, guys: If the Frost poem is right, any random path you choose will end up seeming great! Take a job, any job! Rationalize it when you’re 70!
Bonus Maybe-Gaffes: What Does Sex Have to Do with Operating Systems & Raisins?
Then there are countless examples of songs that are actually about sex being used to sell stuff that has nothing to do with sex – for example, the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” (“you make a grown man cry,” etc.) being used in commercials for Windows 95 and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” (which is about a man finding out his woman is cheating on him) being used to sell raisins.
This seems a little like missing the point, but in reality I think companies will use sex to sell ANYTHING. So it's probably not a "mistake," just tacky (especially when trying to sell "nature's candy" to children...).
Can you think of other examples of songs, books, or other art being misinterpreted in marketing campaigns?