Selling “David Bowie”: Commercial Appearances and the Developing Bowie Star Image
Abstract and Keywords
In his 1987 “Creation” advertisement for Pepsi, David Bowie alters the lyrics to the hit “Modern Love,” inserting “Now I know the choice is mine” into the chorus. Though the change echoes Pepsi’s own “Choice of a Generation” tagline, it also illustrates the oddity of Bowie’s choice to move into commercials. At this point, Bowie was a wildly popular and financially successful musician, on the heels of hits Let’s Dance and Tonight: This move to ads was a strategic choice rather than a necessity. Beyond monetary considerations, why bother to embrace high-profile advertising now? This chapter argues that commercials, like music videos, costumes, and interviews, served Bowie as a vehicle for reinforcing his star image on a very public stage. In ads from 1968 to 2013, Bowie embodied his current persona, entering people’s homes through their television as well as their radios. This chapter will analyze his 1987 Pepsi spot (“Modern Love”), 2011 Vittel ad (“Never Get Old”), and 2013 Louis Vuitton short (“I’d Rather Be High”) to illustrate the consistent shaping of public image Bowie executed through advertising.
In his 1987 advertisement for Pepsi entitled “Creation,” David Bowie alters the lyrics of his hit song “Modern Love,” inserting the words “Now I know the choice is mine” into the chorus. The change clearly echoes Pepsi’s own “Choice of a New Generation” tagline, but it also illustrates an important aspect of Bowie’s more aggressive move into commercials in the mid-1980s. At this time, Bowie was wildly popular and financially successful on a scale he had not achieved before, thanks to the success of hits Let’s Dance (1983) and Tonight (1984); this high-profile advertising work was a strategic choice rather than a strict necessity. Indeed, Bethany Klein pegs this choice as strikingly odd: “David Bowie’s involvement does stand out against the usual music selection of the colas, which tends towards more ‘commercial’ artists, or those for whom commercial affiliation has less of a stigma attached” (2009, p. 87). Klein fails to note, though, that Bowie had appeared in television ads from the late 1960s onward and had embraced the “commercial” label with gusto in the mid-1980s; indeed, he was rebranding himself as commercial.
This personal branding strategy becomes apparent in the congruence between these ads and Bowie’s use of his image in his music videos. Commercials, like music videos, costumes, and interviews, served Bowie as a vehicle for reinforcing his star image on a very public, almost ubiquitous, stage. Only allowing the use of specific (not always brand-new) songs and styling himself in specific ways, Bowie co-opted advertising as another tool for the definition of his public self. Many corporations and ad campaigns were similarly only too happy to more clearly define Bowie’s iconoclastic image while aligning themselves with it.
Though many, including Philip Auslander, have studied Bowie’s changing personae, his commercial spots have received comparatively little attention (Auslander, 2006). Bowie’s involvement in advertising took many forms, from early visual work in the (p. 475) 1960s, to playing an ad man in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners, to his own appearances in commercials. Of those early years in advertising, Bowie stated in a Cameron Crowe (1976) interview: “I went into advertising and it was awful. That was the worst. I got out of that and tried rock & roll because it seemed like an enjoyable way of making my money and taking four or five years to decide what I really wanted to do.” What he “really wanted to do,” it seemed, was a long and complex musical and actorly career, which would circle back around to include advertising as one of its many facets. In ads from 1968 to 2013, Bowie used his likeness and music as a means of dual promotion: self and product. Though this approach is not unique, Bowie’s overt construction of his own star image makes his utilization of advertising particularly striking. In interviews, he is clear about his goals, making his partnerships a bit different than the presentation of many advertising deals. Well before the ubiquity of pop star advertising, Bowie made use of the platform for his own purposes of self-definition. The songs Bowie chose to license for these ads and the acting and styling choices he shows provide insight into the manipulation of a constructed “David Bowie” for that particular moment in time. This chapter will analyze his 1987 Pepsi spot (“Creation”), 2003 Vittel ad (“Never Get Old”), and 2013 Louis Vuitton short (“L’Invitation au Voyage”) to illustrate the consistent shaping of the public image Bowie executed through advertising. In these ads, Bowie’s iconicity as a performer is manipulated to effectively and immediately communicate not only Bowieness but also the timeless coolness of each brand through the invocation of specific images.
This use of musical identity to build brand identity has reached a point of saturation in recent years, earning Leslie M. Meier’s (2011) label of “promotional ubiquitous music.” Such an identity strategy is not unique but is very closely aligned with Bowie’s careful crafting of his star image, which stretches back decades. Meier sees music as useful in rendering authenticity for the consumer, though “authenticity” is anathema to much of Bowie’s work. Meier writes, “Not only is music useful for breaking through promotional clutter, but it can also speak to identity and signify (even if problematically) a sense of ‘realness’ amid experiences constructed by the brands” (Meier, 2011, p. 412). For Bowie, any sense of realness was always already constructed, and quite consciously so. The extensive use of his constructed personae in clearly unreal environments is at the center of each of the ads analyzed here. In contrast to the “typical” artist/brand relationship, Bowie’s advertising forays show an idea of identity as not inherent, but chosen. Bowie himself chooses a variety of different identities throughout his public career, most of which are referenced in these three commercials. Perhaps, then, Bowie’s value to these brands lies not only in his ability to create a more “real,” personal connection with the audience but also in his ability to show the power of choice in self-definition through the invocation of many of his own iconic iterations. The Pepsi, Vittel, and Louis Vuitton spots show a clear distillation of artist as image that mimics Bowie’s own use of his iconicity. Beyond this, Vittel and Louis Vuitton actively invite audiences to borrow Bowie’s approach, creating themselves through Bowie’s image and the products it supports.
(p. 476) Bowie’s Masks: Developing Personae
From the very beginning of his music career, David Bowie adopted different mantles, meant to align with the tenor of his work at any given time. The idea of the pop star as actor was not new; as Simon Frith writes, “A pop star is like a film star, taking on many parts” (1996, p. 199). Bowie took this part-playing to heart, though, making it central to his approach to music. Among his most famous are Ziggy Stardust, the titular alien of Bowie’s smash album—a glam rock alien god come to “let all the children boogie”—and the Thin White Duke of the mid-1970s, a drugged-out, nihilist European aristocrat, dancing as the world falls down. Each of these persona changes seems a bit like method acting, as Bowie inhabited the characters both on- and offstage. In fact, in a 2002 Terry Gross interview, the artist acknowledges Ziggy as an all-consuming role, and one that he would have liked to have given life beyond his own incarnation. Ideally, he “would love to have handed it on to somebody else…put the wig on and send him out to do the gigs, you know” (Gross, 2002). Though this hand-off never came to fruition, Bowie’s comment shows an innate understanding of the power of the persona: Rather than gaining his potency from a closeness to the “authentic” David Bowie, Ziggy drew recognition and definition from a few clear iconic costume choices and mannerisms. This understanding permeated Bowie’s performance of character, whether he was overtly playing a named alter ego or simply defining the public’s star image of David Bowie.
Publicly, Bowie’s appearance and interviews would align with each musical persona shift. Everything from wardrobe to professed influences would be altered to match the latest iteration of the Bowie character, showing clearly in Bowie’s pronouncements throughout the 1970s. In the Diamond Dogs era, his most frequently cited influences included the Beat poets and George Orwell (Copetas, 1974). (Christopher Isherwood would replace them in only two years.) As Ziggy Stardust, he espoused a bisexuality that he would hedge in later interviews (Watts, 1972). Most notably, Bowie landed in hot water over the controversial pronouncements of his Thin White Duke character. Playing the disaffected Weimar-era aristocrat in 1976, Bowie told interviewers that he could have been the Adolf Hitler England needed (Crowe, 1976). Most transformations did not include such overt fascism but did necessitate changes of wardrobe, physical appearance (in makeup and hair), and mannerisms.
With each change came new, clear icons of the current persona: a shock of red hair, an eyepatch, a stark black-and-white wardrobe. Working with specific photographers at the beginning of his career (and strictly controlling access and published images), Bowie and his management were able to craft a very specific and clear public image. In 1974, Steve Turner wrote of the “making of David Bowie” into a “cult figure”; his choice of words was apt. Bowie had indeed been made, crafted into a specific image that was quite separate from his earlier public appearances (the shaggy pseudo-hippie of “Space Oddity”). Manager Tony DeFries set careful limits on still and moving images of Bowie in concert, outlawing all but MainMan management–authorized photos. The photographs of Mick (p. 477) Rock, in particular, have indelibly imprinted a consistent image of the Ziggy Stardust era. In these photographs, Bowie is seen in costume, with hair and makeup styled. He is shown at a remove—not laughing with fans and bandmates, but an aloof rock god in the mode of Ziggy himself.1 As Turner wrote, “No photographer was going to catch our David with his frail humanity exposed” (Turner, 1974, p. 20). Authenticity and humanity were not the purview of this rock god. Rather, the artifice was clear and embraced, and all the more powerful for it.
This alignment of character and person was consistent throughout Bowie’s career. Indeed, when the final Ziggy Stardust show ended at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, Bowie told the audience it was the “last show we’ll ever do.” In D. A. Pennebaker’s concert film of that night, the audience’s shock at the pronouncement is palpable—but Bowie only meant that this was the last appearance for the Ziggy character. For the audience, this performance of a character had become real, and David Jones, David Bowie, and Ziggy Stardust elided. Such clear crafting of style and persona would continue for years in the performer’s public life. In his personal appearance and stage dress, Bowie carefully constructed each persona with a clear look, meant to immediately evoke that character and the sound of their world and work.
While control of still images whetted the public’s appetite for more of this mysterious, changeable Bowie, video was also harnessed in the service of image craft. An early adopter of the music video format, Bowie dabbled in promotional videos from the late 1960s onward. It is his collaborations with photographer Mick Rock, though, that solidified the idea of moving images as central to Bowie’s persona, and that produced looks and moments that would follow him throughout his career. The “Life on Mars?” video is perhaps the clearest example. Shot in 1973 to promote a song from 1971’s Hunky Dory, the video features Bowie alone on a completely white backdrop. Clad in a Freddie Burretti suit, the performer’s shock of red hair and dramatic makeup stand out starkly. Rock’s decision to wash out the color of the video helps to intensify the impression of Bowie’s constituent parts: A red crop, eyes with uneven pupils, and a trim, powder blue figure dominate the short film. The look would become so iconic that, even in the 2000s, magazine spreads of Tilda Swinton and Kate Moss would mimic it. The clear honing of image shown in these early videos provides the lexicon from which Bowie, his management, and advertisers would draw for years to come.
From mime to stage acting to producing others’ albums to appearing in commercials, all aspects of Bowie’s public persona can be analyzed as facets of this unified expression of Bowieness, tied together by the way each iteration exploits specific imagery for iconic impact. Bowie stated that he and other rock stars were really actors, drawn to the medium of rock as a point of entry, despite working in a variety of fields (Crowe, 1976). His commercials from the 1980s onward show that actorly impulse and unified (p. 478) multimedia approach very clearly. These commercials, of course, serve the dual branding desires of Bowie and the corporation that has hired him, but they also show a distillation of visual and musical language on an even more concentrated scale than the music video, which is ultimately instructive for us in studying Bowie’s definition of self and persona. Each of these three commercials turns to specific strategies also present in Bowie’s music videos.
As authors like Joanna Love (2012, 2015) have shown, commercials present an interesting and fruitful nexus of the many forces active in shaping a performer’s public persona. Richard Dyer’s (1979) analyses of classic Hollywood press coverage and product endorsements point to the same idea, but it is in commercials, particularly of the 1980s and beyond, that we begin to see musicians incorporating their own music and specific aspects of their image into the marketing of a product. As in Love’s analyses of Michael Jackson and Madonna’s Pepsi ads, I will concentrate on two main aspects of Bowie’s commercial work: the incorporation and alteration of his original music, and the relation of his styling in the commercials to his current public persona. The eras of these particular commercials present interesting moments in Bowie’s evolution, when his persona was either under recent revision or out of the public eye entirely. As such, these commercial spots shed important light on the conception of “David Bowie” in these moments and the tools for altering that conception. Their use of a consistent visual language that references specific Bowie videos is instructive.
“Creation”: Let’s Dance With Bowie’s Masks
With his 1987 Pepsi commercial, Bowie and the PepsiCo corporation sought to capitalize on the artist’s hugely popular work of the early 1980s. The spot features “Modern Love,” a hit single from Let’s Dance, released in 1983. Though the choice of a four-year-old song for a new ad campaign is not in keeping with Pepsi’s strategy with artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna, it makes sense for this stage of Bowie’s career. Let’s Dance and its sound were a departure for Bowie, a gamble that paid great financial dividends. Bowie’s late 1970s had been artistically successful but commercially difficult. Following the critical acclaim of his Berlin trilogy (consisting of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) in the late 1970s, Bowie turned to a more salable sound in the mid-1980s. Working with producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers of Chic, he sought commercial success, and achieved it. With hits like “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” and “Modern Love,” Bowie became more of a mainstream success than ever before. His Serious Moonlight tour in support of the album was an international success and was aired as a television special on HBO in February 1984. His subsequent albums, Tonight and Never Let Me Down, sold well but did not achieve the same level of ubiquity that Let’s Dance enjoyed. (p. 479) For Pepsi, a slightly older song with immediate recognition power seems an easy choice for an ad campaign.
At the same time, Bowie’s mainstream visibility extended beyond his musical career. A serious acting career, begun in earnest with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), gained steam in the 1980s, with roles in The Hunger (1983); Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983); Labyrinth (1986); and Absolute Beginners (1986). Featured in periodicals like People and Time in 1986, Bowie was present in the average American home in a way he had never achieved before. This peak moment was ideal for his continued involvement in advertising, which moved to a more prominent level with the “Creation” Pepsi campaign. That deal involved a TV spot with Tina Turner, with whom Bowie had recently recorded, and Pepsi sponsorship of both of their tours (Glass Spider and Break Every Rule, respectively).
In keeping with Pepsi’s musician collaborations of the time, “Creation” tells a vignette of a story that centers on Bowie and Turner’s interaction. Unlike ads like Jackson’s “The Concert,” though, this spot is not longform, not part of a series, and was not premiered with the ballyhoo accompanying Jackson’s. In the commercial, Bowie plays the role of a geek who is building his ideal woman with the help of a computer, Weird Science style. He tears images from magazines and art history books and inputs them, waggling his eyebrows as he inexplicably tries to scan a sexy ankle boot. As the computer goes to work, Bowie kicks back—and knocks over his Pepsi onto the computer. The creation kicks into hyperdrive and Tina Turner emerges, her appearance blasting off all vestiges of geekdom from Bowie and leading to their Pepsi-infused strut in front of the “Pepsi Diner,” which features a Pepsi vending machine (lovingly caressed by Turner) near its entrance. This dance is set to the new “Modern Love” lyrics “now I know the choice is mine.” This lyrical rewrite is, of course, a nod to the “Choice of a New Generation” tagline, and links Bowie and Turner’s ad to earlier installments from Michael Jackson and others. The connection to Michael Jackson is particularly telling, as Bowie’s iconicity is exploited here in much the same way Jackson’s was in his ads.
As Joanna Love has shown, Jackson’s “The Concert” spot manages to evoke the performer without making much use of his highly recognizable face. Jackson had set limits on face time, and Pepsi was able to make that absence almost invisible, through evocation of iconic Jackson imagery. A glittery glove, white socks, and dancing feet stand in for Jackson’s face (Love, 2015). In much the same way, Bowie’s 1980s hits and persona are evoked. Though his face is visible throughout, it is in details and close-ups that Pepsi’s strategy is clear. First, during the opening “construction” section, we’re given multiple close-ups of Bowie’s face. Importantly, these clarify his presence (despite his geeky disguise) but also draw attention to the features he had emphasized for years. For example, we’re given a facial close-up shortly after Bowie scans a photo of a set of eyes, serving to highlight his own mismatched eye colors, perhaps his most recognizable feature, and one that is emphasized in videos like “Life on Mars?” (1973). After his transformation from geek to debonair dancer, Bowie and Turner strut, he wearing his “red shoes,” an allusion to the lyrics of “Let’s Dance.” Subtly, Pepsi points to the height of Bowie’s popularity, even though that is not the most recent Bowie iteration. Beyond that, there’s (p. 480) Bowie’s dual roles as geek and sexy love interest, reminiscent of the video for “Blue Jean” from 1984. In the Julien Temple–directed longform music video, Bowie plays both the dashing “Screamin’ Lord Byron” character and a geeky, gawky audience member incapable of successfully making a move on a girl. Both directly and indirectly, “Creation” seeks to invoke the Bowie of Let’s Dance, allowing both Pepsi and Bowie to continue to capitalize on it.
Musically, the “Creation” version of “Modern Love” is quite similar to the album version. Alterations are largely in the service of including Turner and adding Pepsi’s tagline. Unlike in Pepsi’s reworking of “Billie Jean,” most musical structures remain the same. Love has pointed out that many of the songs offered for Pepsi campaigns by Jackson and Madonna were “anything but the benign pop songs that littered top 40 radio” (2012, p. 207). In fact, Bowie’s “Modern Love” fits the bill quite nicely, veering away from more controversial topics and presenting a musically catchy and lyrically clean vehicle. Differences in “Creation” tend to be omissions of sections to fit the time restrictions of the minute-long ad, rather than changes in harmonic function. For example, the song’s guitar riff intro is omitted in “Creation,” as is Bowie’s spoken word section in the postchorus that follows. The first verse is also left out. The resulting structure is simplified from the single version. It consists of postchorus, verse two, prechorus, and a truncated iteration of the chorus. Apart from this, some of the ambiguous or dark aspects of this song’s lyrics are changed in the duet version. For example, in verse two, “But I never wave bye-bye” is changed to “But I always wave goodbye.” More substantially, the chorus lyrics are altered to include Turner in a sort of call and response, while also highlighting key Pepsi terms (notably, “choice” and “satisfies”). In all, the changes for the ad version are relatively minor, preserving the identifiable features of Bowie’s single and distilling it into a more potent vehicle for Pepsi’s “Choice of a New Generation” campaign.
Unfortunately, where the Michael Jackson and Madonna campaigns feature multiple installments that show a developing style, we can only speculate on the large-scale strategy that would have been employed in a long-standing Bowie partnership with Pepsi. The deal would reach a rocky end for him with the emergence of sexual assault allegations in 1987. Stemming from an appearance in Dallas earlier that year, Bowie faced litigation alleging that he had sexually assaulted a fan and infected her with HIV. It does not seem that these allegations received wide exposure beyond the Dallas market (accounts appeared in the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald on October 30, with the Washington Post running a brief account of Bowie’s agreement to an AIDS test early in November), and a grand jury did not decide to indict him on the charges. The woman, Wanda Nichols, did not receive a settlement from Bowie, but the possibility of such action was enough to end his endorsement deal.
As such, the only existing Bowie/Pepsi ad is “Creation,” providing a window into the way that Pepsi’s existing marketing strategies would have been tailored to their application in Bowie’s case. Aaron Walton, who was present on the Glass Spider tour as Pepsi’s representative, later described his approach to music and advertising as “using music, celebrity, and pop-culture to amplify brand messages and connect with consumers (p. 481) experientially” (Hope, 2018, emphasis added). This experiential focus appears in the “Creation” ad through its emphasis on Bowie’s construction of self through familiar, iconic images. Throughout, we can see an attention to iconicity, as well as a strategy for musical alterations that refocuses the song’s content for maximum positivity and Pepsi references. For what it is worth, Tina Turner’s Pepsi partnership continued; in ad spots like “We’ve Got the Taste,” a similar visual approach is used, focusing on Turner’s iconic hair and legs before launching into her performance. Whether subsequent Bowie commercials would have continued to reach into the artist’s back catalog and identifiable visuals is unclear, but later endorsement deals would certainly return to the artist’s most iconic, consciously constructed moments.
“Never Get Old”: History Repeating
As Bowie himself once said, “I’m really just my own little corporation of characters” (Crowe, 1976). In the two later commercials that I address, Vittel and Louis Vuitton take this strategy and expand upon it, incorporating it into their own campaigns. Rather than pointing to a Bowie who is a few years out of date, these ads seek to invoke an entire history, and to capitalize on that history and its scope. Manipulating Bowie’s iconicity, these ads link their brands, and Bowie himself, to a timelessness and pop culture currency connected to these images. Their use of current Bowie compositions helps to make those personae and images more contemporary.
Indeed, Vittel’s 2003 ad is a veritable iconography of David Bowie. The Ogilvy and Mather Paris spot plays on the idea of Vittel’s bottled water as the source of new life—such a powerful source that Bowie’s many personae spring to independent life and populate his house, as contemporary Bowie walks among them. The commercial is set to “Never Get Old,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of his aging rock star status. The song comes from Bowie’s Reality album, released in the same year as the ad, 2003. Chris O’Leary (2019) sees humor in Bowie’s irreverent approach to the aging rock star image in this song. One of rock’s remaining superstars, Bowie could pillory the seemingly unending energy, youth, and vitality he and his contemporaries were expected to project. Bowie, in his song, and Vittel, in this commercial, do just that. The music eschews any of the odder Bowie trappings: No literary references litter its lyrics, and the production and instrumentation are typical of guitar-driven rock. Musically, relatively little is surprising and nothing is altered from the album version, allowing the visuals to take the lead and capitalize on Bowie’s iconicity and legacy.
Bowie’s past is evoked with laser precision throughout. It is easy to imagine such an ad playing on past Bowie roles in broad strokes, but here the man himself and impersonator David Brighton recreate specific and iconic images in great detail. The ad begins with Bowie seeing his current reflection paired with that of his Ziggy era. This shot is a re-creation of images from a 1972 Mick Rock session shot at Bowie’s home, (p. 482) Haddon Hall, later to be featured on the cover of the retrospective collection Nothing Has Changed (2015). The cover images of The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Diamond Dogs (1974), Low (1977), and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) also make appearances. A custom Alexander McQueen Union Jack frock coat, made for the cover of 1997’s Earthling, hangs by the brownstone’s door. Icons of David Bowie live everywhere in this house and this commercial. Beyond these image recreations, there’s the connection of this ad, with its mirrored, younger Bowies, to the “Thursday’s Child” (1999) video, which features Bowie watching a younger version of himself through the frame of a mirror. Much like the Vittel ad, the visuals play with concepts of age, persona, and continuity in interesting ways.
This image precision is noteworthy as it shows a further step in the exploitation of Bowie’s iconic past. More than the oblique references of “Creation,” here the specific instance is key, and our memory of that instance aids in the efficacy of the spot. One can easily watch and understand the main conceit of the ad without specialized Bowie knowledge, but with the added specificity of the images, Vittel and Bowie play with identifiable history in a way that adds punch to that conceit. Bowie can jokingly sing that he’s “never ever gonna get old,” but there’s a kernel of truth to that—not, of course, because he stays hydrated with Vittel, but because we, in our memory and consumption of him, will never allow him to age. As consumers and fans, we hold these previous iterations of Bowie in our memory and in our record collections. We consume these variations on the Bowie star image long after their expiration dates, and much of the work they continue to do is in definition, both of Bowie and ourselves. Bowie long recognized the importance of image for defining “David Bowie” to the public, but in creating this character, he also created a mode for fans to do the same. Our appreciation for and celebration of various eras of Bowie’s work help to show the world who we are and what we value. Similarly, access to the shibboleth of these Bowie images and personae allows the target audience to take part in the ad and see themselves within it.
The target audience for this ad, with their knowledge of Bowie stretching back to 1970, is likely much the same as the audience for that 1986 Pepsi spot. This generational group, with buying power to spare, has been highlighted by Taylor and others as a variation on the “new petit bourgeoisie,” who have imported their popular music into advertising not only because it is what speaks to them but also because it represents a counter to the previous generation’s focus on educated, trained classical musicians (2012, p. 233). Such an impulse, Taylor argues, led to the popular music wave of the cola wars but changes here as that same generation, now older and more established, affects advertising in different arenas and works with younger boomers. The idea of marketing as not presenting information, but “being invited to participate, to join the hip club” speaks directly to Vittel’s approach to Bowie (Taylor, 2012, p. 236). Now, this group is aging, and the revitalized images of their rock icon allow them to see themselves in his past and in his healthy vigor. By directly recalling memorative images and experiences, Vittel’s manipulation of the Bowie star image implicates viewers, giving them the same potential for revitalization as Bowie: they too are “never ever gonna get old.” That same focus on Bowie’s past, and explicitly our consumption of and identification with that past, is present in his next major campaign, for Louis Vuitton in 2013.
(p. 483) Fantastic Voyage Through the Past: “L’Invitation au Voyage”
Bowie is present within commercial spaces, apart from these advertisements. The fashion industry in particular has aligned itself closely with Bowie through use of his music, invocation of his personae, and more. In a role spoofed by his Zoolander cameo, Bowie was something of a fashion elder statesman, married to supermodel Iman and attending such fashion events as the CFDA Awards and the Met Costume Institute Gala. His likeness is invoked in runway shows such as Diane von Furstenberg’s autumn/winter 2013 collection, among many more. Even though Bowie did not appear in campaigns for them, his close collaboration with designers like Freddie Burretti, Kansai Yamamoto, Alexander McQueen, and Dior Homme’s Hedi Slimane helped to define Bowie’s career as well as those of his designers. That he should align his image with fashion label Louis Vuitton in 2013 is not surprising.
“I’d Rather Be High,” or “L’Invitation au Voyage,” a Louis Vuitton advert from November 2013, comes at a moment of resurgence for Bowie. In March of that year, he released The Next Day with very little advance notice: The video for the lead single, “Where Are We Now?,” appeared on the internet in January, well before any news of the album had broken to the public at large. This represented the first album from Bowie in the decade since Reality, and since his health issues had precipitated the early end of the tour in support of that album. With The Next Day, Bowie showed himself to be a still-vital and -vibrant musical force—and importantly, one concerned with his own history. The album’s artwork plays on the artist’s iconography. Designed by Barnbrook, the immediately recognizable “Heroes” (1977) cover image is repurposed, its central portion obliterated by a blank square and the austere font of the title The Next Day. The cover itself directly invokes the past while also recasting it. In fact, Barnbrook also designed a viral campaign that used this template as the basis for a meme, including text variants like “Your Idea of David Bowie Here.” This rewriting of the past is a favorite gambit of Bowie’s, and one that surfaces in his advertisement appearances of this era as well.
The ad’s invocation of audience participation in reclaiming the past is a bit less overt than Barnbrook’s campaign. Directed by Romain Gavras, the short finds model Arizona Muse arriving at a masquerade, serenaded by Bowie at the harpsichord. Guests dance around them, with costumes and masks loosely evocative of Bowie’s earlier guises. Muse finds her way to the harpsichord bench and listens as Bowie performs “I’d Rather Be High.” The model is quite literally transported by the experience, clutching her Louis Vuitton bag and closing her eyes in a reverie—until she awakens again in modern-day Venice, a sheet of music the only evidence of her voyage to this alternate world. Visual references abound, most notably to the Rothschilds’ Surrealist Ball of 1972 and, of course, the “As the World Falls Down” ballroom sequence of Labyrinth. Here again we find Bowie as the impresario of a fantastical ball, potentially engaged in an age-inappropriate flirtation with our female protagonist. He is, of course, not styled as Jareth the Goblin King, but in much more appropriate Louis Vuitton menswear and accessories.
(p. 484) It is worth noting, though, that hints of more outré Bowie incarnations pop up in shots of the masquerade guests. We find a bearded attendee whose eye patch and bright red beard connect him to the Diamond Dogs–era Bowie seen in television performances from 1974. Later in the spot, we’re given a brief shot of a reveler showing a Bowie-favored hand sign. (It was originally made popular with the Junior Birdman scouts and their song, and photographs of Bowie using this configuration span the years from 1972 to the early 2000s.) Neither of these visual references is given extended screen time, but they do not need it. The ad is saturated with such details. In the one-and-a-half-minute runtime of the extended ad, references accumulate to form an avalanche of Bowie personae and material. In the grand scheme of things, these images do little to overtly sell Louis Vuitton luxury items. However, for the ad’s ideal viewer (to borrow a construction from Umberto Eco, 1979), these references do carry meaning. They link to a long, shared history with Bowie and, indeed, manage to bring the consumer closer to the product and the endorser. As in the Vittel ad, these references serve not as a vital endorsement of the advertiser’s product, but as a way of creating shared experience with the viewer. Throughout, we’re reminded of Bowie’s iconic, timeless rock star status—a timelessness we could partake in, the ad would have us infer, with the purchase of Louis Vuitton accessories. Indeed, such a purchase could operate in the same way that Bowie’s use of iconic visuals helped to form public perception and understanding of him throughout his career.
The music seems similarly unmoored from a specific time or place. The song presented here is a dis/reassembly of “I’d Rather Be High”—but it is an altered version of an alternate mix, dubbed the “Venetian Mix” on the extended album. Absent from the original album version, the harpsichord is featured prominently in that bonus mix, along with the traditional rock band accompaniment of bass, guitars, and drum set. The “Venetian Mix” moves the song’s center of gravity from the bass end to the treble, expanding and enriching the song’s sonic palette. In the ad, the harpsichord is isolated with the voice for the first 20 seconds, giving it much more prominence. The ad’s remix removes the song’s intro, instead giving a short harpsichord pickup into the first section of the first verse, where we hear the seemingly diegetic performance of these lines as Bowie accompanies himself on the harpsichord onscreen. From there, the second verse phrase is eliminated, taking us directly into the chorus as the (nondiegetic) backing band lushly swells, finally introducing the full orchestration of the “Venetian Mix.”
Though the visual and referential links may be appropriate for Louis Vuitton and its product, the lyrics of “I’d Rather Be High” are decidedly less so. Some lyrical sections are skipped, but no words are changed. Unlike in Pepsi’s strategy, Bowie was not asked to reshape his original words to align with the ad campaign. Steeped in Evelyn Waugh and World War I references (not to mention a vocally reinforced shout of “teenage sex” a bit later in the song), “I’d Rather Be High” does not seem like a ready fit for luxury goods. Given the abundance of Bowie-related visual information and the prominence of his face throughout the spot, we might assume that his persona, and not the music itself, is intended to be the focus and link, a strategy that differentiates Louis Vuitton’s approach from Pepsi.
(p. 485) Though no record of the music played in Louis Vuitton brick-and-mortar stores in 2013 is currently accessible, it would not be much of a stretch to imagine Bowie’s The Next Day having a presence there. Indeed, the synergistic use of music in commercial spaces is well documented (see Sterne, 1997). Recently, LVMH (Louis Vuitton’s parent company) named a music director for its menswear division, which is currently helmed by designer Virgil Abloh. Benji B (Benjamin Benstead) had a history of radio DJing and involvement with fashion events but is now on the Louis Vuitton roster as the official creator and curator of the Louis Vuitton menswear soundscape. In a recent interview, Benji referred to his work as “about understanding context and how to create moments by adding emotion and atmosphere” (Soar, 2018). This perspective on music’s importance for the curation of a brand identity is undoubtedly at the heart of earlier Louis Vuitton work as well.
By invoking Bowie in sound and image, BETC Paris’s ad for Louis Vuitton invokes the “emotion and atmosphere” linked to Bowie. Its target audience would bring with that sound and image an important memorative mark, and perhaps a link to the construction of their own identities. Again, it would not be illogical to assume that the intended audience for all three of these commercials is the same: In their younger years, their interest in pop music would lead them to be prime targets for Pepsi’s new strategy. As they reach middle age, those same consumers would be Vittel’s audience. In their peak earning years, Louis Vuitton’s handbags and luggage would appeal. Given this continuity, it is no surprise that the strategies employed by each corporation (and indeed, by Bowie himself) are so similar and seek to capitalize on Bowie’s nostalgic importance for this audience. LVHM’s curation of soundscape in both runway presentation and commercial spaces shows a clear continuation of this strategy, seeking to appeal to and build community through a consistent, ubiquitous musical (and musicianly) identity for the brand.
What is most striking about the ad is the way its visuals play into the latest Bowie guise. In press coverage and his own music videos supporting The Next Day as in the Louis Vuitton ad, Bowie’s ghosts are never too far away. The album saw Bowie reunited with long-time friend and producer Tony Visconti, and many popular press reactions to the work explicitly tied it to their history and Bowie’s past. Cast as a return to form after a long absence (and, though this remained largely unspoken, after the critically unappreciated albums of the 1990s), The Next Day was both a new start and an invocation of past work. Simon Reynolds’s review touches on both points, labeling the 1990s works as “running close to empty,” and The Next Day a “twilight masterpiece” that explores Bowie’s recurring themes, masks, and locales (Reynolds, 2013). “Where Are We Now?,” the album’s first single, addresses Bowie’s time in Berlin through its lyrics. Images of Berlin street scenes and interiors also populate the video, accompanied by Bowie’s face projected on a Tony Oursler puppet. We can see an alignment of Bowie’s commercial work and his own promotion via album art and music videos; both seek to capitalize on the iconicity of David Bowie. Bowie’s current persona and value lies, here, in his history.
(p. 486) Conclusions
These commercials elucidate a common thread among Bowie’s various uses of the moving image: In each medium, he seeks to foreground images both recognizable and malleable, able to be reconfigured for a new setting. This eye toward the possibilities of image was present from his earliest appearances and is deeply informed by his work on the stage and as a visual artist. In Bowie’s later commercials, we can see a savvy move. The artist transplants his image campaign from the more traditional (his music videos) into the media currently most accessible to him (commercial videos aiming to exploit his iconicity). While MTV was, in 2003, less likely to give extensive airtime to the latest video from such an established and older musician, companies were still likely to want the endorsement of the rock superstar David Bowie. Indeed, he recognized this potential even earlier. During his more experimental late 1970s, Bowie’s celebrated Berlin Trilogy albums (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) were a tough sell to radio stations. Undeterred, Bowie appeared in a number of ads for Crystal Jun Rock, which he admitted were useful for the paycheck and also for the increased exposure, hard to come by after his less mainstream experiments with Brian Eno (O’Leary, 2019). By aligning his goals with those of corporations eager to cash in on his fame, Bowie employed another prong in his strategy of self-promotion and definition.
While his appearances share much in common with, for example, Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Pepsi spots of the 1980s, Bowie’s engagement with advertising was both more complete and, in some ways, less guarded. Like Jackson and Madonna, Bowie capitalized on the iconic aspects of his performance persona, but unlike the others, he used advertisements not only for increased exposure of new works and a paycheck but also to refine and re-present his public construction of self. While Michael Jackson, in particular, is depicted through his current iconic attributes, Bowie’s strategy relies on a consciously anachronistic use of iconic imagery. He is not reflecting the present, but reshaping himself through the past. Later ads show this potential even more, perhaps reflecting the increased cultural capital and power that Bowie held. As an elder statesman of rock, he did not retreat from advertising as some indication of “selling out,” but rather embraced its potential in the sphere of public opinion.
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(1) The release of Mick Rock’s Taschen photo book in 2016 marked the first widespread public viewing of many of his Bowie photos from this era. It’s notable that the photos that did not fit the company line were only released after Bowie’s death.