Thick as Thieves

Among our fundamental rights as Americans, my personal favorite has always been freedom of perception. You know, the unspoken corollary to free speech: “You say what you believe, and I’ll hear what I believe.” Because of all the liberties we hold dear, what could be more American than the right to be wrong? To interpret events through the distorted lens of our own bias? To hear what we like and ignore what we don’t?

Thanks to this precious freedom, O.J. Simpson is enjoying his on a golf course in Florida, John Ashcroft is detaining people in the name of liberty, Yao is starting NBA All-Star Games in place of Shaq, and many Americans believe the most offensive moment so far this year in the world of media and marketing involved one boob exposing another.

That’s where we differ, America and me. Because as much as I hate to disagree with such notable nipplephobes as Michael Powell and Tommy Lasorda (both bottle-fed as babies, I’m guessing), I have to say the lowest moment wasn’t Janet’s flash dance or Nelly’s groin grab. Nor was it Bud Light’s equine flatulence or Chevy’s potty-mouthed pip-squeaks. It is the Pepsi download commercial.

You know, the spot where an actual pubescent felon is paid to smirk in our faces about how she was prosecuted for downloading music for free off the Internet and how, thanks to Pepsi and Apple’s iTunes Music Store, she’s going to keep doing it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Promotionally speaking, this campaign is a masterstroke. It’s a spot-on sales incentive for the pop peddlers and a fabulous platform from which to promote the retail model that may well save the music industry from a slow death via the rampant theft of its product. If we weren’t talking about greedy multinationals here, it might even be possible to ascribe some nobility to the enterprise.

Maybe that’s what terrified the Pepsi/BBDO braintrust. After all, the first commandment of youth marketing is Thou Shalt Not Promote Responsibility. So in advertising this promotion, the Pepsi team felt the need to dress up its law-abiding message in outlaw clothing, effectively flipping the bird to the music industry in the process. Which is a tad ironic, considering that no advertiser has paid more money over the years for the privilege of coasting off the currency of pop stars. Indeed, its other Super Bowl spot exploited the ghost of Jimi Hendrix for a modestly amusing joke at the expense of its cola-brewing nemesis in Atlanta.

Now, I’m not defending the cynical hacks at MTV or their sorry stunt. But what does it say about our culture that we’re more concerned about the effect a little titillation might have on our kids than about a major corporation celebrating them for stealing? Last time I checked, theft was explicitly prohibited by the Eighth Commandment, whereas you have to delve pretty deep into the Old Testament to find a prohibition on boobage.

If in the months ahead Sony Music were to debut a spot extolling the hipness of vandalizing Pepsi vending machines, I personally would find it hilarious. But somehow I’m thinking the gang at PepsiCo in Purchase, N.Y., might see it differently. And fortunately for all of us, we live in a country where they have that right.

For the record: In “The Return of the Dumb Blonde” [March 1], Tom O’Keefe was incorrectly identified as executive creative director at Young & Rubicam in Chicago. He is ecd at Foote Cone & Belding in Chicago. Also, Nick Lachey was a member of the band 98 Degrees, not NSync.