Brooks Brothers' Gatsby Collection & Other Advertising Tie-Ins That Totally Missed the Point


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.

romeo and juliet

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”:

Great Gatsby Advertising Mistake

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.

advertising mistakesSimilarly, 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 campaign that ran during the Super Bowl in 2000. The campaign was supposed to “reinforce'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?

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May 07, 2013

Do the words of a song really matter? Didn't gangnam style prove that nobody cares about lyrics.

Elisa Gabbert
May 07, 2013

Doesn't this post prove that some people do?

May 07, 2013

Yes, to a point. They're just trying to match literal words with their theme, like grapes. They don't care about broader meaning.

Elisa Gabbert
May 07, 2013

I can see that. My point is that the people they're advertising TO may care.

May 07, 2013

At my wedding reception we tried to pick music that wasn't about breakups or affairs or murdering or obsessive stalker love (etc.) but it was hopeless.

Elisa Gabbert
May 07, 2013

LOL. You can't micromanage EVERY song, but I don't recommend picking "Every Breath You Take" for the first dance.

May 07, 2013

Remember when urban legends had to spread through email instead of Facebook and Twitter?I remember this one:"
The other day I saw another Microsoft commercial on TV: sublime choral
music drifts through the background as the unseen user surfs through the
Internet and various Microsoft content using Internet Explorer. The
commercial closes with the Microsoft slogan "Where do you want to go
today?" and a final, furious blast of music. It's a very cool effect. But
if you dig a little deeper...

As it turns out, the background music is the Dies Irae of Mozart's
Requiem Mass. And the words of the final blast of music which accompanies
"Where do you want to go today?" are actually "confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis..." In English: "When the damned are confounded,
and consigned to sharp flames..."; which describes exactly where I want
to go today.
"Not sure if it's true or not.

Elisa Gabbert
May 07, 2013


Nov 19, 2013

Yes, Microsoft did indeed run this ad. It was part of their education advertising push in ~1997 and the ad had a lot of material from their Encarta multimedia encyclopedia. They pulled the ad within a week and have been very vigilent to ensure it does not stay posted on the internet.

Megan Marrs
May 07, 2013

Shakespeare is used incorrectly out of context soo many times. I think my favorite is Polonius's "to thine own self be true" line that is spoken inbetween lines of complete drivel and really is intended to make Polonius look like a nitwit, but it's still quoted on everything from Hallmark graduation cards to coffee mugs.While it's not advertisers mixing up context, I'm also really sick of all these ads recently featuring adults talking to babies about something. First I think it was some bank doing it, now it's AT&T. Just leave the kids alone! Why are boring adults always have round table discussions with them about cell phone plans or CD accounts?

Elisa Gabbert
May 08, 2013

Ha ha! Totally. It's weird how ads do that, rally around a certain theme that makes no sense in the first place.

great gatsby quotes
May 08, 2013

The reason for all destroyed things in the world is illiteracy. Learning, learn from anything and make path for life through through the better way is very important in human life. Thanks for shearing your learning things from great gatsbye.  

Elisa Gabbert
May 08, 2013


Advertising Partner
May 09, 2013

I believe that if you're having a music on for creating backgroun atmosphere you don't really need to mind the lyrics.When the music get's more attention people will start noticing more of what texts will be sang and then it gets more importance.

Ryan Rollan
May 13, 2013

Some campaigns dont have, shall we say quality control or maybe they are also not perfect. with that errors they make can only gain a consequences. thanks

May 22, 2013

Choosing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” for that commercial was a great idea. Not only was the play on the grape and raisin relationship darn brilliant, but the song is catchy. Just like in movies or TV shows, the songs shouldn’t be too spot-on. They are there to create mood and keep an audience’s attention, not be a play by play of the storyline. By the way, your remark about Senator Santorum’s agenda somehow being antithetical to freedom (especially how it relates to African Americans) lacked complete class. Apparently, defamation of character and racial extortion are part of your agenda.

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