PopZette

A-List Advertising: Finally Hip

TV commercials that were once taboo are acceptable now

Bob Dylan is shilling for IBM? No way! Way.

The times really are changing with George Clooney, Jennifer Garner, Steve Buscemi, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, James Franco and Chewbacca showing up on the small screen as commercial pitchmen, selling everything from cars to caffeine, candy bars to credit cards.

Do they need the money? The exposure? Since when did it become cool for Hollywood “royalty” to lower themselves, pitching products to the public? Where did all the thespians go?

In a 2005 interview in GQ Magazine, Australian actor Russell Crowe fired a philosophical shot at three of the biggest actors in Hollywood:

“I don’t use my ‘celebrity’ to make a living. I don’t do ads for suits in Spain like George Clooney, or cigarettes in Japan like Harrison Ford. To me it’s kind of sacrilegious. It’s a complete contradiction of the f***ing social contract you have with your audience. I mean, Robert De Niro’s advertising American Express.”

A bold statement, and in 60 words or less, Crowe expressed in rough terms a feeling Hollywood has had for decades: TV ads are not the place for above-the-line movie stars. Sports stars, yes. Musicians, OK. Struggling actors on their way up — or once-famous actors on their way down hoping to catch a comeback — sure, they have to pay the bills, they need face time.

The transition from taboo to cool began a long time ago, in the 1980s, when it was acceptable for high-profile actors to serve as pitchmen in Japan: Ben Stiller shouting “Fresh!” for Kirin Chu-Hi; Keanu Reeves stalked by a cat and a hot chick for Suntory Reserve; Natalie Portman fencing with marvelous hair for Lux Super Rich; Jean Claude Van Damme doing high kicks for Black Black Gum; Hulk Hogan selling Big Flow air conditioners; Nicolas Cage for Sankyo Pachinko.

Audiences understand that Japanese ads are meant to be silly, so the bizarreness of it all never seemed to jinx the acting careers of the Hollywood elite (save for Hulk Hogan and Nicolas Cage, perhaps).

During the next 20 years, the transition from Japanese to American TV screens happened gradually, with top actors opting for high-paying voice-overs in TV commercials: Jon Hamm was the voice of Mercedes-Benz and American Airlines, Julia Roberts (Nationwide), Kiefer Sutherland (Bank of America), Martin Sheen (Maxwell House), and Morgan Freeman was reportedly paid between $1 million and $2 million to be the voice of Visa Debit Cards.

Clooney crossed over by first lending his voice to Arthur Andersen, AT&T, AquaFina and Budweiser. But he eventually stepped out of the sound closet and stood alongside Danny Devito to sell Nespresso. Clooney first appeared in Nespresso ads in Europe, but his first ad for North America took a unique approach. The ad is 90 seconds long, which allows Clooney to explain himself, if you will. By the end of the ad, when Devito gets the girl in the bear suit, the audience is charmed for sure.

“You don’t want to do ones that aren’t classy,” Clooney remarked to the British media regarding his work on behalf of Budweiser, Nescafe and Martini. “That’s the truth. That’s the secret to it. You want to have a product you are proud of and not embarrassed by.”

With American commercials, quality is decidedly higher, and top-tier celebrities aren’t afraid of tarnishing their image.

Coincidence? Conspiracy? No. Commercial genius.

In “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson goes to great lengths to get his wallet back from Tim Roth’s cafeteria robber. Twenty-one years later, Jackson is asking, ‘What’s in your wallet?” for Capital One. Coincidence? Conspiracy? No. Commercial genius.

McConaughey departs from a stylish home, arrives at another stylish home, and plays a hand in a high-class poker game, all while flashing his Lincoln MKC — and all without saying a word. A jazzy soundtrack sets the tone. The effect is pure elegance. They make you want to be McConaughey before you even know what he’s selling.

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Not everything is serious, of course. Julia Louis-Dreyfus recently released a lighthearted commercial on behalf of Old Navy, in which she ties up Snoop Dogg, demanding a million dollars in exchange for his freedom. Thankfully for “Mr. Dogg,” Louis-Dreyfus’ partner-in-crime tips her off on Old Navy’s million-dollar giveaway, and she’s convinced to release the rapper from her custody.

It might be a stretch to imagine Crowe as the voice of Outback Steakhouse anytime soon, but even still, it’s hard to deny the shift from the 1980s to today. The taboo on A-list actors on the small screen has all but disappeared.

This is no conspiracy. It’s Hollywood, and it’s always been about money.

This is no conspiracy. It’s Hollywood, and it’s always been about money. Make no mistake: These artists are in business. They’ve finally found a way to make a cool buck without losing social credibility.

Audiences can expect to see more A-list pitchmen — as long as they can keep it classy.