Maybe you’ve caught Amy Schumer’s breakout movie, “Trainwreck,” her award-winning TV show, or that high-profile Golden Globes appearance with good pal Jennifer Lawrence.
If not, there’s always the Budweiser commercial.
Schumer’s campaign-themed ad, which premiered during the Super Bowl and has played almost nonstop ever since, is one of many signs that hawking consumer goods on TV isn’t just for has-beens and B-listers anymore. Matthew McConaughey began his moody Lincoln TV commercials within a year of his best actor Oscar win for “Dallas Buyers Club.” Oscar winner Charlize Theron appears in TV adds for Dior’s J’adore perfume, and Mila Kunis whose credits include “Black Swan” and “Ted,” is gamely hoisting whiskey barrels on behalf of Jim Beam.
Anyone old enough to worry about “selling out” – and, yes, the term does date you – will be scratching his or her head.
But experts say that millennials, the 83 million Americans between 15 and 34 who are increasingly driving consumer and popular culture, are quite comfortable with big actors plugging products. This is a generation that’s at home with rap music’s embrace of luxury brands, Taylor Swift’s CoverGirl ads, and the commercial-entertainment juggernaut that is the Kardashians.
“This is the most marketed-to generation in human history,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of the bestseller “Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders.”
So while their parents, the idealistic baby boomers, might be miffed to see a movie star in a TV commercial, millennials would likely see the situation as unexceptional, Pollak says, and move on to the questions that do concern them.
“What millennials use as their gauge, more than anything else, is transparency,” Pollak says. “With the celebrities that you mentioned, they’re very transparent. With Amy Schumer, it’s ‘I’m hawking for Bud. I’m doing a commercial. I’m not hiding it – this is who I am. I’m using my celebrity to sell a product.’”
The concept of “selling out,” or trading your artistic principles for financial gain, still resonates among baby boomers and the grumpy Gen-Xers who followed, and big-name actors still head off to Japan to film coffee, cellphone, liquor and fashion ads that, by mutual agreement, cannot be televised in the United States.
In 2012 George Clooney addressed the issue directly during a Newsweek Oscar roundtable, saying he makes a lot of money doing coffee ads overseas.
“You do?” he was asked.
“I do and I don’t give a (expletive),” Clooney said. “People will go, ‘Oh, that’s a sellout,’ and you go, ‘You know what? (Expletive) you.’ I don’t rape the budget of a movie. We shot ‘Ides of March’ for $12 million dollars. We shot ‘The Descendants’ for under $20 (million). We’re not killing the budget on the film, so we get to make those films and if they make money, then good. Then they made money. But I’ll go make money somewhere else. I’m interested in movies. That’s what I like to do.”
The concept of compromising art for commerce features prominently in the recent T-Mobile ad featuring Drake singing his mega hit “Hotline Bling,” but here it’s played for laughs.
A bunch of clueless marketing types keep asking Drake to change his song to include information about data charges and upgrade eligibility, and he agrees with an attractive mix of irony and good cheer: “Fantastic idea! These changes don’t ruin the song at all!” In the end you learn that he’s really pitching for T-Mobile, which apparently wouldn’t make an artist do this kind of cheesy rewrite.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, top actors did print ads, but by the 1960s attitudes were changing. Boomers took their anti-establishment street cred seriously (“Don’t trust anyone over 30”) and they took sides: You were for the Vietnam War or against it, for civil rights and women’s rights or opposed, a member of the hippie counter-culture or a puppet of mainstream consumer culture.
Big movie stars who wanted to be taken seriously steered clear of TV ads – in the U.S., at least. By the 1980s, Paul Newman was doing commercials in Japan. In the 1990s, stars including Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster appeared in Japanese ads, according to Japander.com, which defines a Japander as “a Western star who uses his or her fame to make large sums of money in a short time by advertising products in Japan that they would probably never use.” The word can also be used as a verb.
There was a ripple of surprise – and discontent – when Brad Pitt filmed a lamentably goofy Chanel ad that aired in the U.S. in 2012, and YouTube comments sections suggest that some viewers still see a TV ad as a step down for a star.
“My guess is there are some purists” who object to the ads, says Neal M. Burns, a professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin.
“If Marlon Brando had been advertising for Lexus, I wouldn’t have been happy.”
But millennials tend to reject the kind of stark either/or thinking that pits artistic purity against crass commercialism. Tiger Woods famously proclaimed, when asked about his ancestry, that he was Cablanasian – or all of his ancestries, Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian. He wasn’t going to choose; he was going to include – in effect, he was rejecting the boomer dichotomy implied by the question.
“Being your own brand, being your own identity, kind of plays into (everything for millennials),” says Pollak, an expert on millennials in the workplace. The attitude is, “I’m going to make my own choices. I’m not going to judge you for whether you get married or not, or have children, or when you do that – there’s no timeline anymore.’ It’s something I admire about them,” Pollak says.
There are economic factors too, Pollak says.
Because of the financial crisis and student debt, a lot of millennials have side gigs – they may be launching an app while they’re working at a bank – and they embrace that duality.
“You don’t just have to be an actor. You can be an actor and a pitchman for a brand and a singer and a perfume designer,” Pollak says. “You can be multiple things, as opposed to just a doctor. Or just an actor. I think there’s a lot more understanding that people have multiple facets and multiple income streams.”