Call it radvertising. In their search for images to pawn otherwise unwanted widgets, advertising creatives might safely assume that Hello Kitty! sparks less emotion than Chairman Mao. Likewise, when subcomandante Marcos ousts the Maytag Repairman and Fidel Castro snuffs the Pillsbury Doughboy, consumers are apt to react.
Despite the looming wrath of the marketplace, many companies are willing to risk appropriating emotionally charged, value-added images for their campaigns. But the kidnapping of revolutionary icons for capitalist exploitation is akin to tossing a molotov cocktail into the public psyche. The broken pieces may line a shining path to profits -- or have advertising execs as anxious as Suharto at a Jakarta shopping spree.
For revolution incarnate, see also: Castro, Fidel. Cuba's president is both idolized and demonized -- a powerful sight from wherever you stand. When Wells Rich Greene featured the cigar-smoking strongman's doppelganger flicking his Bic in a TV spot, the prize was an Andy award. American Airlines wasn't so lucky. During the inauguration of the company's Texas-Miami service, customers were shocked to find a Castro lookalike greeting them at the gate -- and a soundalike addressing them over the plane's PA system. Cuban exiles on the flight were not amused, and American later apologized.
If revolution has a fashion statement, it is doubtless the black beret of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Shortly before his 1967 execution by the Bolivian army, Guevara reportedly told a captor that he'd be of greater use dead. Three decades later, the bearded image of the Argentine doctor-turned-Cuban patron saint has taken over the world: pins and posters, murals and mudflaps all scream revolution. Even in Bolivia, La Paz university students and fans of irony can now ponder Che in mural form, sharing top billing with a Coca-Cola ad. "Che's image hasn't lost its powerful epic and revolutionary value, and continues to accompany us with the same tenacity as ever," Cuban culture minister Abel Prieto said at a recent Havana exposition celebrating Guevara's likeness.
That's old news to brewmeisters peddling Che beer. Havana was up in arms when British brewers for the Panama-based Corporaciòn Cerveza Clara SA stocked shelves in 1996 with bottles bearing Che's name and face. "The idea was to create a rebellious image, and we felt the Che name does that," Joe Grahame, managing director of CCC Europe, told Bloomberg Business News.
The ever-seductive Che is both medium and message, product and publicity. Like the Lacoste alligator or the Nike swoosh, the Che logo is half the product. Che sells alongside Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix to teens who know he was a rock star. Take a simple cotton T-shirt, add decades of revolutionary struggle and a product is born.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to have Idi Amin squeezing your Charmin. It is entirely another to use "palatable" revolutionaries who inspire dissidence through nonviolence. Revolution Lite plays better in Peoria, as shown by Apple Computer's "Think Different" campaign. Rather than a more aggressive "Pol Pot, what's on your PowerBook?" TBWA Chiat/Day claims Apple consumers pay a different drummer, using inspirational figures like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Ghandi (who also gave good karma to a VH-1 spot) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Tseten Samdup, spokesman for Tibet's exiled leader, says the ad was approved because it's about "people who have made a difference in this world under difficult circumstances . . . Mahatma Gandhi was one of the people, and His Holiness' views on nonviolence are from those of Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhism." Nonetheless, Samdup acknowledges that there has been "lots of disapproval," adding that "more advertisements of this kind" are "most unlikely." The Apple image was dropped from ads in Asia. China, which occupies Tibet, thinks different.
Sometimes real-life icons aren't necessary. It may suffice to tap into vague public notions of revolution -- distilling and bottling revolutionary zeal -- to link a product to rebellion.
Taco Bell, aided by TBWA Chiat/Day, spawned the latest sibling in its family of allegedly tasty Tech-Mex morsels with just such a campaign. A Che-esque Chihuahua yelling "Viva Gorditas!" to a zealous crowd raised the ire of Miami Cubans who smelled a canine Guevara ("It's about Gordita-ism, not Communism," a Taco Bell spokesman explained). It also sparked demand for both Gorditas and Chihuahua clothing.
Advertisers see value in countercultural icons, too. Despite the Beat generation's eschewal of materialism, William Burroughs graced a 1994 ad for Nike Air Max sneakers. Jack Kerouac reviled his image as a countercultural hero, but has been sold as such. "Jack Kerouac wore khakis," read one execution in The Gap's trouser campaign. For '60s iconoclast ice cream vendors, see the late Jerry Garcia, and Woodstock emcee-hippy jester Wavy Gravy ("I'm a clown and a frozen dessert.")
Even Mexico's subcomandante Marcos is fair game. When the Zapatista National Liberation Army met the world media in 1994, its troops donned black ski masks to insure anonymity. But faster than you can say hasta la victoria siempre, filmmaker Oliver Stone was down in the land of Marcos dolls and revolutionary trinkets, allegedly talking movie rights. The media image frenzy inspired Edgardo Bermejo's satirical Mexican novel, Marcos Fashion, in which el subcomandante endorses Benetton outdoor wear, pipe tobacco, and other Zapatista-inspired products. Fiction met reality when Benetton's Oliviero Toscani, champion risk-taker, followed up with a real-life offer. Marcos declined.
"Advertisers, no one doubts, are capable of anything," writes Mexican journalist Jaime Lorenzo in Marcosmania. "This includes using a guerrilla movement whose slogans include doing away with neoliberalism, the ideological cradle of advertising."
There was no promise at press time of Black Panther Happy Meals or Emma Goldman action figures, so in the meantime: Workers of the world, unite -- and wait for