"Telephone," Lady Gaga's steamy nine-and-a-half-minute YouTube video duet with Beyonce, has been called a mini-movie. But it might more accurately be called one long commercial.
The babes-behind-bars fantasy is a dream for advertisers: there's as much product placement going on as there is sexy dancing.
Once the heart palpitations cease after the initial viewing (warning: video NSFW), repeated screenings could become a sort of a Where's Waldo-like game of spot-the-product.
There’s that Virgin Mobile phone Gaga snatches from the butch prison-yard tough’s waistband. How about those Diet Coke cans employed as hair rollers in Gaga’s bleach-blond tresses? Gaga whips up some Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip sandwiches (who knew she could cook?).
And then there's that Polaroid camera Gaga puts to excellent use by snapping plenty of pictures of Beyonce.
The camera’s not just a prop for Lady Gaga, whose wild fashion style taps into retro elements. As the New York Post notes, she inked a deal with Polaroid in January making her the company's "creative director and inventor of specialty products."
Whatever that all means, it's clear the iconic cameras are getting their greatest music video exposure since OutKast exhorted us to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" in 2003’s “Hey Ya!”
Product placement has become so common in movies and TV shows that we're barely noticing any more – which is exactly what the advertisers want. Sure, "30 Rock" will nudge the fourth wall with jokes about the presence of Snapple, and wags will speculate about what's really in the Coke cups in front of the "American Idol" judges. But there’s a lot more that’s just slipping by our eyes, and possibly into the subconscious.
Lady Gaga, as is her wont in fashion and music, is taking things to a new, outrageous level in the video, which is more than a pairing of superstars – it’s a sprawling web of marketing deals. The tactic reflects a changing music business where artists no longer make the bulk of their money from album sales, but cash in on performances, merchandising and sponsorship deals.
The blatant commercialism can be an uncomfortable fit at times in popular music, whose appeal has long rested, at least in part, in a sense of youthful rebellion against an establishment that ostensibly includes corporations and crass consumerism.
Michael Jackson, owner of the Beatles publishing rights, sparked an uproar in the late 1980s when he sold off “Revolution” to be used in a Nike commercial. Now there’s not much of a fuss when a syrupy version of "Hello Goodbye" floats through a Target commercial, or "All You Need is Love" is used to tell you all need is a BlackBerry (what’s next – “BlackBerry Fields Forever?”).
The Who anticipated the marriage of rock-and-roll and advertising in 1967 with their satiric "The Who Sell Out" album, which included images of the band members using Heinz’ baked beans and other products that are plugged in faux radio commercials on the record. In 1982, the group became first major rock act to go on a corporate sponsored mega-tour (their first big backer: Schlitz beer). More recently, The Who started a Web-based fan club with a “subscription” fee that runs $50 a year.
The Web, significantly, is where "Telephone" debuted. The video has notched nearly 20 million hits on YouTube since it was posted March 13 – enough, in TV speak, to make it one of the top-rated shows of the week. Those numbers, which will only grow with time, would please most advertisers.
The commercial, er, video, is a homage to Russ Meyer, Quentin Tarantino and “Thelma and Louise,” and ends with this promise: “To be continued.” It’s a good bet that advertisers already are scrambling for some exposure in Part 2.
Like her hero, Madonna, Lady Gaga knows her greatest product is herself. But she's smart enough to know that in these changing times, she just might need to sell a lot more.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.