Sample and scold

Negativland thinks Pepsi is wily, and maybe evil. Better that than irrelevant or boring.

Marketing Magazine, December 1, 1997   

Negativland has found itself a new target.


The troupe of (self-described) “audio terrorists,” “culture-jammers” or (more accurately) “perpetual AV geeks who’ve read too much bad French critical theory” have set their phasers on stun and drawn a bead on Pepsi-Cola. Can you imagine anything bolder than taking on a soft drink company? Negativland’s latest CD Dispepsi dismantles and reassembles old Pepsi advertising to subvert its original intent. How clever.


Like the smug, simplistic, not-very-entertaining work of Adbusters, this kind of effort makes you wonder what sort of culture-deprivation tank Negativland’s been living in. Who sees a Pepsi commercial and thinks, “Yeah, my life does lack meaning. I’ll hit Pepsi’s ‘Generation Next’ recruiting station tomorrow and sign up”?


Negativland is dim enough to think it’s the first to figure out that editing audio can produce meanings different from what its originators intended. Never mind that such “sample, hold and repurpose” technique is the animating principle of at least half of what passes for popular culture product these days. Hip-hop artists have been doing it with two turntables and a microphone for about 20 years. TV figured it out a decade ago. Negativland’s naive cluelessness shouldn’t be surprising; it thinks people encounter advertising in some fugue state of total credulousness.


But why Pepsi? Nobody seems to know except Negativland, and it’s hard to reach. We tried e-mail, directory assistance and its former record company. We phoned the radio station where it does a weekly show featuring its audio collages, all to no avail.


Negativland’s name may ring a bell. It spent most of the last decade fighting with lawyers for Casey Kasem and U2 over what constitutes “fair use” under American copyright law. The whole thing started as a joke, then turned tedious and self-righteous almost immediately. Negativland covered U2’s bombastic anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” apparently unaware that British satirist-puppeteers Spitting Image had beaten them to the punch by years with “Nobody Knows What I’m On About.” Negativland’s retread used a flinky little drumbox, flatulent synths and outtakes from a taping of radio’s American Top 40 in which host Casey Kasem ranted profanely about the original song’s ponderousness and U2’s grotesque self-importance. The single skewered two targets neatly: U2 lead-singer Bono’s off-the-shelf messiah complex (which, in retrospect, seems preferable to his current “emperor of ephemera” smirker-berserker incarnation) and the star-tantrum petulance lurking just behind the colossally insincere smarm of Kasem’s radio show. (The original AT40 tape without Negativland’s noisome filigree is a lot funnier.)


Well, in principle it skewered those targets. In practice, Negativland’s work twists the old Jiffy Pop slogan; this stuff is a lot more fun to think, talk or write about than it is to listen to. It’s also more fun to make than it is to consume. Sure, it raises some copyright and cultural questions. But it’s not very tuneful, and Weird Al Yankovic does sharper and funnier parodies. Since record company lawyers quickly made the Negativland U2 parody unavailable, few heard it. The most successful product to come out of the whole debacle was a book compiling all the motions, letters and similar documents traded by lawyers in the “Still Haven’t Found” fight. Fun? Wow.


So why did hyper-hip Oregon ad agency Wieden & Kennedy approach Negativland, as the Negativlanders claimed in an interview with CBC radio? It seems unlikely. Negativland’s stuff is easy to replicate. All you need is a sampler — you can rent one for a month for less than a hundred bucks. Presumably Wieden & Kennedy’s got the budget to make sampled jingles that are entertaining or amusing instead of grating or annoying.


Second, Wieden & Kennedy does Microsoft’s consumer advertising. They hired British electronica alchemists The Chemical Brothers to come up with a suitably hipper-than-hip soundtrack for part of the “Where Do You Want To Go Today?” campaign. Why would they hire an outfit to approximate what The Chemical Brothers can do, only not as well? Besides, anybody could simply sample some of Negativland’s work, then employ the same “fair use” defense that Negativland has leaned on so heavily.


If Pepsi’s smart, it will snap up a dozen copies of Dispepsi and hand them over to any of the hundreds of remixers who pull records apart and put them back together in new and barely recognizable forms. What could be more self-referentially post-modern than making new advertising from reconstituted reconstitutions of old advertising?


If Negativland squawks, Pepsi can sample Negativland’s defense: it’s not advertising, it’s a stealthy, subliminal subversion of the semiotics of desire as a means of deconstructing the capitalist paradigm. Or something. But if Pepsi can pull that off, it shouldn’t be making advertising. It should be filing arts grant applications, or seeking tenure in a university pop-culture studies department, about the only two places folks so far behind the curve are guaranteed an audience.