When his album "Modern Times" was released Aug. 29, it was accompanied by a rare thing: a heavy public presence by Mr. Dylan, long a recluse who's come out of his shell late in his career to write a book, conduct a PR blitz and man a satellite-radio show. But most atypically, Mr. Dylan starred in a gorgeous TV ad for Apple's iTunes and iPod. Rather than shout him down as a sellout, consumers turned out in droves, making "Modern Times" his first chart-topper since 1976's "Desire." It hit No. 1 on Billboard its first week in release, climbing over more commercial and younger-skewing acts such as Christina Aguilera and Outkast.
The iTunes spot wasn't just a run-of-the-mill celebrity-endorsement deal in which a big brand signs a big check to tap into the equity of a big star. This one flipped the formula, with the all-powerful Apple brand giving Mr. Dylan access to younger demographics and helping propel his sales to places they hadn't been since the Ford administration. "The iTunes tie-in definitely did more for Bob than it did for [Apple], making him seem younger, cooler and more progressive," said M.T. Carney, partner at Naked Communications in New York.
iTunes music store
That doesn't mean Apple didn't have anything to gain. It, of course, reaped the benefits of driving traffic to the iTunes music store. But Apple -- by far the leader in legal downloading -- only needs so much help on this front, especially given the deep connections it has forged with its consumers.
"Apple is part of a new series of iconic brands that are themselves celebrities," said Brad Fay, chief operating officer of the Keller Fay Group. "These brands have become a conversation currency, a social currency, a natural part of human interactions. In a world where you can't rely on water-cooler chatter because not everyone saw the same TV show the night before, brands are the shared experience instead of media."
Brands as celebrities
In other words, brands themselves, from Apple to Starbucks, which has done distribution deals for Mr. Dylan's records, to Anheuser-Busch, now creating its own online entertainment channel, can become media. And as they grab eyeballs and wallets in-store or leverage popularity with consumers through associations with drinking or watching sports, celebrities start to have more to gain from them than vice versa.
The nature of celebrity, too, has been devalued. For that, you can thank the ever-lowering bar to becoming a celebrity -- think LonelyGirl15 and Lazydork -- as well as the education of a consumer class that, in the decades since ballplayers went to bat for deodorant brands, has wised up to the fact that star testimonials amount to one big shill.
"The thing that even large-scale advertisers don't get is that they're dealing with a bionic consumer, inured to all the glitz and glamour and aware that someone's getting a big paycheck," said Robert Passikoff, founder-president of the consultancy Brand Keys. "They should be looking for associations that bring higher levels of value and meaning."