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September 16, 2009

Book Notes - James P. Othmer ("Adland")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Adland is part memoir, part examination of advertising's effects on modern culture, and in both instances the book succeeds. James P. Othmer's experience in advertising as well as his keen eye and wicked humor fill the book with insightful and often hilarious anecdotes in one of the year's pop culture must-reads.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"After a giddy beginning banging out copy for a small ad agency, Othmer, a longtime creative director and copywriter, worked his way to the top in 2000 only to discover that his traditional agency was being abandoned in favor of forward-thinking brand stewards who wanted hip new ideas from smaller shops well-versed in new media and digital marketing. Fascinated by groundbreaking interactive campaigns like the 2007 Nine Inch Nails Internet Easter egg hunt and Burger King's Subservient Chicken gag, he found his love for advertising reinvigorated, and his book is an effort to better understand the inescapable industry's influence on culture."

In his own words, here is James P. Othmer's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet:

In Adland, I write that advertising is based upon a tension between art, commerce and ethics. And in recent years nothing represents this tension better than the ad industry's relation to the music industry.

Without a doubt, advertising has been stealing the soul of great music for almost a century. But in recent years, there have been an increasing number of instances where ads have helped bring an artist or band sudden mainstream attention. A quick online poll of friends, many still in advertising, for songs ruined or made popular by ads within minutes received dozens of responses within minutes, including these, which range from the inspired, to the downright depressing. For the artist, the brand, for you and me.

"'Major Tom' for Chrysler... Bowie should be kicked in the nuts for that."

"I discovered the band Rogue Wave, when I heard their song "Lake Michigan" on a commercial for Microsoft's already forgotten Zune. Great band, though."

"I think the iPod ads did a lot for the artists featured on them: Jet, Feist, U2. OK, maybe not U2."

"Steve Winwood wrote the song ‘Don't You Know What The Night Can Do' for a Michelob commercial, then had the balls to also include it on his subsequent album. Talk about double-dipping."

"The Clash's ‘London Calling' (nuclear apocalypse) to sell Jaguars, or Iggy Pop's heroin fueled ‘Lust for Life' for Carnival Cruise lines."

"Nick Drake, ‘Pink Moon', VW."

"Sting/Jaguar and Elvis Costello/Lexus did these really obnoxious commercials that were supposed to be about the music and the art, but were really just sleazy soft-sells for the cars. Elvis's even had a Beethoven track, not Elvis's music so, see? He's not a sell-out. What a tool!"

"2 of my favorite misused songs for commercials: ‘Golden Brown' by the Stranglers is about heroin, Ore-Ida used it for their french fries, and ‘Fortunate Son' by John Fogerty, critical of rich boys avoiding the draft during the Vietnam war but used by Tommy Hilfiger to promote that same rich, preppy lifestyle."

Much of Adland is about the choices we make as artists and professionals, particularly some of the choices I wrestled with as a would-be novelist working in advertising. Would you work on a cigarette account? Fast food? But the questions I ask apply to any profession creative or otherwise in the information age, particularly music: If you've already made billions would you give a classic song from your catalog to a car or software company, or Led Zeppelin did with Cadillac ("Rock and Roll"), or the Stones with Microsoft ("Start Me Up")? And of course it's different if you're a struggling artist, as Nick Drake might have been categorize pre-VW (I heard he sold more albums in the first month after the spot ran than he had in his entire career). Would using your song on a very special episode of The OC, or for a Nike commercial constitute selling out, or is it a smart move in a business in which it's now almost impossible to break through?

Damned if I know. Anyway, here's some of the music I listened to while writing Adland.

Tony Bennett "The Best is Yet to Come".

I interviewed Bennett in his suite in Cannes just before he gave a special performance to a hundred or so advertising big shots in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic. It was during the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. My friend Josh Rabinowitz, who runs the music department at Grey advertising had set up the meeting. Because I was writing about advertising I was supposed to ask him about his relationship with Target, or the fact that Grey and Yahoo had sponsored that night's performance. Instead, while he sipped a bowl of tomato soup, we talked about creativity: painting and Miles Davis and Count Basie and never singing a song such as this selection the same way twice. For this reason our talk never made it into the book. Who cares? I got a free education, and he gave an amazing performance.

Loretta Lynn "Van Lear Rose"

I don't think Loretta Lynn or Jack White gives a damn about branding, but collaborating on this album was a stroke of brilliance. Not as good as White's collaboration with Johnny Cash, but up there.

The Hold Steady "Sequestered in Memphis"

This song and this album grew on me because of the music but also because they bring vividly to life compelling narrative adventures. I don't have the focus or attention span to piece together story or meaning if the words to a song are cryptic, especially while writing. But this is right in your face: Dude goes on a business trip and gets himself in a shit-load of trouble. Not that this ever happened to me.

Tom Waits "Step Right Up"

The theme song for all hucksters, snake oil salesman, ad guys, and the late great Billy Mays (for Oxy Clean!) Not that Waits would ever let anyone use his work for a theme song, let alone the track for a commercial.

Joey Spallina "Real Thing"

Joey is currently being drawn and quartered by the tension between art, commerce and ethics. His first gig was a bunch of demos he wrote and performed for KFC for me while in college. Three of them sold. Now, by day he's a composer for the commercial music house Tone Farmer, and by night he's a singer songwriter. Oh, yeah, full disclosure: he's also my nephew.

The Arcade Fire "Keep the Car Running"

Listening to music while writing and editing non-fiction is easier for me than while writing a novel. This tune is a good late-day pick me up.

The National "All the Wine"

There's something brash and irresistibly Walt Whitmanesque about this song, beginning with the lines "I'm put together beautifully/Big wet bottle in my fist, big wet rose in my teeth/I'm the perfect piece of ass." All of which, of course, I'm not.

Gomez "How we Operate"
Wilco "Impossible Germany"
Death Cab for Cutie "I Will Possess Your Heart"

While working on Adland, all three of the above songs were regular rotation on my favorite public radio station, WFUV, which streams live out of Fordham University in the Bronx. Mix tapes are good, and Pandora is perfect at times, but nothing beats a station whose deejays are cultural curators, consistently pairing me with artists in tune with the syncopation of my soul.

James P. Othmer and Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet links:

the author's blog
the author's Twitter feed
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book

Beth's Book Review Blog review
The Daily Beast review
Denver Post review
Huffington Post review
On Message review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for his novel The Futurist
Three Guys One Book interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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