While watching last month’s Super Bowl, I came to realize it’s really not about THE GAME – it’s about advertising REVENUE. Of course, it’s always been about ad revenue. The ultimate NFL game being the mechanism for delivering gazillions of bucks to whatever network (this year NBC) happens to be hosting the Super Bowl. But this year, I didn’t have a dog in the fight. My somewhat beloved Dallas Cowboys were sent packing by the Packers in the playoffs. Never the less, the game between New England and Seattle was one of the best ever played…as if that mattered. One distraught Seattle fan committed suicide apparently believing that his team’s loss did matter quite a bit. But I digress…
Because the Super Bowl is by far the most watched television program, it can command as much as $4.5 million dollars for a 30-second ad. The ads often have to be cute, outrageous, sentimental, racy, and over the top to attract viewer’s attention and the chattering class. Budweiser which has been a reliable sponsor from one year to the next used their ad time to poke fun at the burgeoning micro and craft brewing industry. The message was straight to the point, if you like some sort of pumpkin-peach brew then this Bud is not for you. But the ad that really grabbed me was by Jeep. Their ad begins with one of America’s greatest folk songs – Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land sung by an up and coming singer/songwriter Marc Scibilia. So far so good. The visuals take us from California to the New York Island back to the Gulf Stream waters. And then…we’re taken to various destinations around the world. Argentina,China, Africa, India, Europe and points in between take up most of the content before we’re back in America with the words on screen “America’s smallest lightest SUV”. And that’s when it hit me, what just happened?
Where do I start? The song itself (at least in the version most people know) is a celebration of this country. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It is hard to conjure up an image of someone singing this song at The Great Wall of China. It wouldn’t make any sense. And it is difficult to believe Guthrie, were he still alive would have endorsed or allowed his song to be used in this way. As Ed Wallace, the host of the popular radio program Wheels stressed to me in an exchange of emails, the irony is that This Land Is Your Land is essentially an anti-capitalist song when considering all of the verses. The sad fact is that even Guthrie’s family doesn’t control the copyright. Apparently Ludlow Music exerts copyright authority or believes that they do. They tried to exercise authority back in 2004 when Jibjab used the song in an online parody of the Bush/Kerry presidential election. But oops…the copyright actually expired in 1973. Now Ludlow claims it does own the copyrights to different versions of the song. It was not unlike Guthrie to write multiple versions of many of his songs, sometimes improvising on the spot. A book could be written about artists who have lost ownership of America’s most popular songs through the decades.
And while Jeep originated and has a storied history in this country, it is no longer owned by an American car company. The Italian car manufacturer Fiat currently owns Jeep as well as Chrysler. Which begs the question, is Jeep America’s smallest, lightest SUV? Possession is 9/10ths of the law as they say, all semantics aside. The Super Bowl is no doubt broadcast around the world, but American style football still takes a backseat to soccer as far as global popularity. From the ad, it’s hard to tell if Fiat wants to sell more Jeeps here or overseas. If they want to sell more vehicles to destinations portrayed in the ad, then the World Cup would be a more viable venue. But This Land Is Your Land is not the song. A more apt tune would be John Lennon’s Imagine. But don’t ask Yoko. She doesn’t control the copyright.
I remember singing This Land Is Your Land in school about the time Guthrie was dying due to complications from Huntington’s disease. The song wasn’t considered political then, after all this was conservative Texas. It reinforced the ideal of everyone having a stake in this country. Even if you had to “roam and ramble” like Woody you would still find a way to open up windows of opportunity no matter how many “No Trespassing” signs lined your path. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Guthrie’s masterpiece.
What just happened? I’m not sure. I’ll check my wallet to make sure it wasn’t picked during that 60 second commercial. But more than that, I’ll make sure my soul is still intact. As Woody liked to say, “Take it easy, but take it”.