In a world of clutter, ads are trying to stand out. The over-saturation of products shouting at consumers via different media– billboards, magazines, phones– have lulled consumers into the complacent state of the alien spectator where ads are seen, but the reactions are dormant. All ads are the same. All, except, for Dr. Pepper.
At least that’s what they’d like for viewers to think with their latest ad campaign. In general, the spots reflect methods of advertisements which have their roots in the Creative Revolution. Previously ads were generally the same and extremely monotonous in their presentation, simply presenting consumers with one picture of the product and paragraphs of what said product does. With the 1960s, however, consumers became not only wary to large corporations and their intentions but bored of sameness in general, eventually tuning out the old billboards and possibly even resent them. Then came Bill Bernbach, whose focus on the creative department of his advertising agency engendered the Creative Revolution, a revolution of ads that not only created story lines and masterpieces that branded them as a form of art themselves, but produced ads that weren’t “ads.” The Dr. Pepper commercials do just that.
Starting in 2012, the campaign consists of ads averaging in a minute long that appear to be more of a film or movie trailer than a spot for a soda. This is what is known as self-referentiality, a tactic used in the latest general of Creative Revolution ads that gain audience attention by displaying themselves as a different form of media (such as a movie trailer or music video) as opposed to an outright advertisement. The latest additions stars none other than Macklemore, whose late explosion into popularity ads a “cool factor” that warms younger audiences to the spots. More importantly, Macklemore is a symbol of the anti-establishment, his breakthrough hit “Thrift Shop” garnering worldwide acclaim with its pithy lyrics poking fun at consumer culture and the people willing to spend “fifty dollars on a T-shirt.” Not only that, but Macklemore is seen as a maverick in the music industry, promoting not only working hard and being okay with the humble life, but advocating gay rights and defending the little people who are regularly repressed by society. It makes sense, then, that Dr. Pepper would fit Macklemore into this “one of a kind” marketing strategy, where uniqueness and independence from society’s rules are promoted as good, something that today’s cynical generation would find attractive in an ad, and something that Dr. Pepper uses Macklemore for seamless.
The ad begins with Macklemore riding in a black town car past the theater, its billboard stating “Welcome Home” flashing by in the window. These signs, these signifiers (or objects used within an ad to denote a specific meaning), give one the impression that after becoming a success (hence being driven in the back of the town car), Macklemore returns to his hometown and the origin of his humble beginnings. As he steps out of the car, within three seconds of the ad, the notepad he signs for a fan (signifying his new-found fame, something that is enhanced by the sounds of cheers and photos flashing) becomes a notebook in a flashback as a younger Macklemore (whom audiences can recognize by the similar necklace and hairstyle) sits on his bed and broods over newly inked lyrics. Throughout the next few shots, the young Macklemore is ignored on a bus full of people as he hands out CDs, as an older one stands outside of a unappealing bar shaking his head at a young man wearing a suit attempting to hand him a business car. He is selling his CDs out of a beaten-up car now, this time accompanied by his longtime friend and current partner Ryan Lewis, whom he smiles at and is seen recording with in an empty studio. The ad ends with Macklemore triumphantly raising his hands over a crowd of admiring fans, the only indication of Dr. Pepper being in the recurring themes of red and white throughout the advertisement, a discrete can in the background of the young Macklemore, and the older Macklemore taking a thirst-quenching sip right before the logo pops up at the end. No in-your-face product placement, no cheesy dancing or singing; just a story of a man that overcame the odds, and can be satisfied with what his hard work has achieved. The soft drink is merely a part of it, not the main component.
Not only is the lack in the prevalence of a can of Dr. Pepper an outcome from the Creative Revolution, but it is also an example of what advertising analysts Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson refer to as the “accelerated meaning” of the ad, or the deviation from the product itself in order to emphasis a certain type of lifestyle perpetuated by the brand image. For the “one of a kind” image, the accelerated meaning is hinted through a chain of signifiers which ad up to a story of success (Macklemore going from selling CDs himself out of a rundown car to being driven to a concert in the back of a more expensive one gained by hardworking and not selling out (turning down “major music labels,” represented by the well-dressed man with the business cards), sticking to one’s originality and humble roots (“Welcome Home”) even despite the fame. An admirable message nonetheless, but like everything in life the Dr. Pepper’s Macklemore advertisement is riddled with a bit of irony. For one thing, the music genre of which Macklemore belongs, is mostly dominated by African Americans. Not a single black person is shown in the ad, hiding over the reality behind the music genre’s own roots. Another is that the ad ad, in its promotion of Macklemore being “one of a kind,” hides that millions of artists such as Macklemore fail, and hard work is not always rewarded by large amounts of success. Most importantly, however, is the contradiction of Macklemore’s previous image and what happens when Dr. Pepper uses it. Macklemore himself promotes the idea that wealth and fame are naught when compared to sending a positive message out to audiences, music being above the marketing. Yet Macklemore is seen riding in the back of a car which symbolizes high status, his status furthered heightened by the fact that someone else is driving the car for him. He is certainly no longer not spending fifty dollars on a T-shirt, and failed to turn down a major soft drink company in favor of receiving what is undoubtedly a large sum of money. The Dr. Pepper ad is then a form of “cultural cannibalism”, a phrase coined by Goldman and Papson which highlights the phenomenon of taking a cultural aspect that may be underground and progressive, such as being unique and maverick, then incorporating it into consumer culture. This incorporation ultimately kills the original cultural aspect, like Macklemore’s fighting against the machine before ultimately becoming another part of it.
Uniqueness will always be an important aspect, and any message containing its importance will always be admirable. But one most occasionally take apart the message and its content in order to see the veracity behind it, for every image shown is something hidden. Ads are everywhere, and even the ones that appear to be one of a kind will always have some level of sameness.