The Famously Grouchy Lou Reed Had Good Words for Adland

Rock Legend Told Cannes Attendees the Industry Was Fair to Musicians in Hard Times

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Lou Reed at Cannes earlier this year.
Lou Reed at Cannes earlier this year.

Lou Reed, the music revolutionary who reformed rock with the Velvet Underground, died Sunday at 71. Creativity aside, Mr. Reed had a few ties to adland -- an endorser for one product, and a defender of the industry as one of the few "fair" to artists. The latter

In 1985, Mr. Reed became a pitchman, representing Honda scooters. One TV execution, shot in New York's Lower East Side during a far grittier time, used his classic "Walk on the Wild Side" to great creative, if not commercial, success. Mr. Reed, revealed at the end of the commercial sitting atop a scooter, delivers the line: "Hey, don't settle for walkin.'"

David Halberstam shared an excerpt from his book "Playing for Keeps" -- which chronicled the rise of basketball star Michael Jordan -- with Advertising Age in 1999, describing the ad Mr. Reed starred in and its strangely captivating flavor:

"…they came up with something quite original, an offbeat, grainy commercial showing Lou Reed on his Honda, cut to his song "Walk on the Wild Side." It was tough to say whether it was shot by the most skilled professional or the rankest amateur, but it was hip and oddly compelling, in part because the scooter message was pitched only at the last minute."

Mr. Halberstam wrote that the Lou Reed ad came from Wieden & Kennedy at a time when the agency was playing second fiddle to Chiat/Day on the Nike account. And somewhere on the map between Wieden & Kennedy's headquarters in Portland and the tough-looking ad set in New York, there was Chicago, where a budding star named Michael Jordan had only just entered the NBA.

If the rock god and sports legend seem unconnected, they're not. Following Mr. Reed's Honda ad, Wieden & Kennedy churned out a series of commercials for the automaker that helped the Portland agency carve a name for itself in the advertising world. And this encouraged Nike that its backyard agency was worthy of the Michael Jordan account.

Thus, both Nike and Wieden & Kennedy owe a historical nod to Mr. Reed's short-lived liaison with adland. And Mr. Reed clearly enjoyed his brief stint in commercials. Earlier this year, Mr. Reed spoke with the industry at Cannes and differentiated himself as a famous musician who actually liked advertising. What follows is Ad Age's report on Mr. Reed's remarks at Cannes this past June:

A day after hip-hop-mogul-turned-cable-TV-entrepreneur P. Diddy bashed commercials, art rocker Lou Reed sang the praises of a profession that's helping to pay the bills during tough times for musicians. Despite a recent liver transplant, the 71-year-old founder of the Velvet Underground, the house band of Andy Warhol, came to Cannes for a wide-ranging conversation with Tim Mellors, vice chairman and chief creative officer at Grey Group.

He very quickly put to rest any curiosity about what an artist not necessarily known for his mainstream accessibility might think of advertising.

"In a word of downloading, the only people who will pay you for what you do is you guys," Mr. Reed told the auditorium full of adfolk. "Ad people play fair with you. A is A, B is B, C is C."

That's in sharp contrast to how the tech world has treated musicians -- which might be news to some. "I understand that younger people were brought up downloading," he said. "Steve Jobs tried to make it into some kind of business, which benefits Apple. But as an artist, you get about a sixteenth of a penny."

Mr. Reed remembered that during the beginning of his career he got a royalty check for $2.60. "It's pretty much what I get from downloads now. I'm back to where I started."

While the famously grouchy Mr. Reed did grouse about the model for artists and the loss of sound quality that's accompanied the move from vinyl to MP3s, he wasn't a complete crank. Instead, he recognized the trade-off that's come from giving more people access to more and different kinds of music.

"It doesn't mean it's worse," he said. "You have the library of the world. Before you had to search it out. But now it sounds like shit."

Mr. Reed professed his admiration for Kanye West, the controversial rapper who just released his new album, "Yeezus," to wide acclaim. "The only guy really doing something interesting is Kanye West," Mr. Reed said. "He's really good whatever you might think of him on other levels."

Going sadly unmentioned was Mr. Reed's career as an ad pitchman: He starred in a 1985 campaign for Honda scooters by Wieden & Kennedy. Is it a bit strange to see a songwriter whose material was drugs, prostitution and S&M selling scooters? Sure. But the ad is rescued by some tremendous direction and editing, especially the use of jump-cuts.

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