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Published: 7/23/2007

Bands and brands going hand in hand

Bands and brands going hand in hand
In licensing songs, musicians make money, products get promoted -- but it's fans crying foul.
By Chris Lee, Times Staff Writer
July 22, 2007

THE images of dead rock stars entered public consciousness quietly at first, turning up two months ago in a British giveaway magazine, as part of an ad campaign for Dr. Martens boots. In heavily retouched photo montages, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, Ramones frontman Joey Ramone, the Clash's Joe Strummer and snarling Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious are seen perched amid roiling clouds in heaven. Each wears a white angel's toga and a pair of "Docs," the English work boots synonymous with punk rock's smash-the-state ethos. In a corner of each ad, the Dr. Martens logo hovers above the word "Forever."

Controversial Dr. Martens ad
Controversial Dr. Martens ad.
click to enlarge

Despite being seen by fewer than 100,000 people in the campaign's print run, the ads created a furor online and have come to rank among the most reviled marketing efforts in advertising history.

"Tasteless!" ran a headline in TheDailySwarm.com, the website that broke the story. (The images were licensed for use in the UK through Corbis, the original photos' supplier, apparently without permission from the musicians' estates.) Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, lamented the "despicable use" of her husband's image. Fan outcry lighted up hundreds of blogs worldwide. And as a coda, executives at Dr. Martens apologized for the "offensive" ads and fired Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency responsible for them.

Oddly enough, the fracas now commonly referred to as "Heavensgate" may be most notable for its nostalgic value — for reminding pop fans of a time when their idols would rather have been caught dead than appear in TV commercials, vogue moodily in print ads or shout out product placements in their songs. Nowadays, those practices have become an acceptable, if still not altogether palatable, part of the cultural scenery as advertisers increasingly look to pop music for sizzle and to some extent, vice versa.

At a moment in the musical continuum when Iggy Pop's ode to deviant hedonism, "Lust for Life" — a song in which he repeatedly pledges against temptation: "No more beating my brain with liquor and drugs" — plays in spots for Royal Caribbean Cruises, and bubblegum diva Fergie recently inked a reported $4-million deal to sing about Candie's teen apparel on her next album, the use of pop in ads no longer carries the sellout stigma it held for the Woodstock generation, or even in the '90s, when "Alternative" was a stand-alone musical category and indie music was still heard on commercial radio.

Avril Lavigne in a MasterCard ad.
Avril Lavigne in a MasterCard ad.
click to enlarge

As has been reported, that's due in part to more artists reluctantly warming to the idea that licensing agreements are a necessary evil, generating revenue and creat