Thursday 30th June 2016,
Televisual

Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone:’ Product Placement and Corporate Anxiety

Thanks to In Media Res for linking!

Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” is an attempt to bring back the music video, or, to make music videos “big” again, after years of seclusion from TV but tremendous popularity on YouTube. It’s not a genius idea, of course: making music videos big, that is. Talk to any production company in Los Angeles making music videos, and you’ll hear numerous filmmakers lamenting their hard work languishing with 50,000 hits, lagging behind kittens, babies, dancing amateurs, etc.

Still, “Telephone,” like everything else from Gaga, is big (click here for Madison Moore‘s “best of ‘Telephone'” list). But, as other blogs have pointed out, big costs money!

Lady Gaga raised music video product placement to a grotesque degree, solidifying her role as our camp consumerist icon in the same way MJ and Madonna served as postmodern icons in their early years. Gaga gets the money and icon-status; brands get, well, I’m not sure.

“Telephone” is heavy on the product placement, as my colleagues Brooke Duffy and Elizabeth Roodhouse pointed out to me the day the video came out. Duffy and Roodhouse counted ten brands. I added in a few suggestions from Crushable and a kind of joke from myself (the security camera!). Only some of the brands actually paid to get in; nonetheless the 9-minute video is brand/reference-heavy. Let us count!

*Virgin Mobile – Really gratuitous, but the song is called “telephone,” so some mobile carrier had to get in.
*Pelco – The security camera! Okay, not product placement. Still a brand!
*Hewlett Packard – Envy, the security guard’s laptop!
*Coors – Not sure about this one either. See the photo below.
*Polaroid – Seriously? Polaroid? Oh wait, that’s why.
*Diet Coke – Gaga’s gotta watch that figure!
*Chevrolet (Silverago SS 502, Pussy Galore) – Thanks, Tarantino and Kill Bill! Can you actually buy this car?
*Wonder Bread – Classic white, just like Mama made…in 1957.
*Miracle Whip – On a sandwich.
*PlentyOfFish.com – I don’t know anyone on this site. Do you?
*Monster Heartbeats by Lady Gaga headphones – Nice catch, Crushable.
*Honey Bun- Ya, I don’t think they’d pay for this; more the “Honey B.” joke.

Unlike the early music videos of 1980s — Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” — known more for their classic irreverence, “Telephone” is the opposite: a hedonistic and pandering ode to pop culture and consumerism wrapped in a rebellious veneer. Not that I’m complaining! On the contrary, while it feels a little Gen X to me (Tarantino-esque), “Telephone” represents exactly what’s going on in: media, i.e. the doubt about traditional advertising among brands, hence product placement; culture, i.e. celebrity (cameos), couture and hyper-fast visual pleasure; and the music video, i.e. large dance sequences, common motifs like the prison, leather jackets (“Papa don’t preach!”), sexual transgression, loose plotting, etc.

“Telephone” is about the anxiety over the music video itself. Despite Gaga’s past success (“Bad Romance” is a YouTube megahit), the production company felt compelled to offset costs by running to brands, looking to recoup the costs in case it couldn’t through its TV deals and online ad revenue alone. The music video is advertising, of course, but it’s very expensive advertising. As fans demand more, and the pressure to deliver is high (and the possibility of failure is higher).

So the desperation is happening on multiple fronts. The brands most prominently featured in the video are the ones who have to work the hardest to stay hip: it’s HP not Apple, Virigin Mobile not AT&T. It’s the brands people my age either don’t use, have become skeptical of, or find too old-sounding: Wonder Bread, Polaroid, Miracle Whip, Chevy. 

“Telephone” and Lady Gaga might be the perfect vehicles for these brands in a YouTube, post-MTV world. First, Gaga is proving to have some mass, and viral, appeal. Second, Gaga has fully embraced her role as symbol of all that’s “too much” with America and global consumer culture. Of course she’d welcome advertisers into her all-loving embrace! It’s about money and, if it makes money, she’ll take it. In some ways, Gaga’s ironic/sincere embrace of celebrity, glamor and everything else excessive about American culture is a perfect fit for the anxiety-ridden brands populating “Telephone.” Gaga is about excess; product placement is almost always excessive. (Except when artfully and self-consciously executed, as some web series are doing today).

But we are hip to Gaga’s game. She is so consumerist it borders on camp. Her embrace of it all is grotesque. It criticizes that which it loves. Gaga is showing us our demons, and it is a bit unflattering, as demons often are. The very distracting air of desperation in “Telephone” could work against the brands and to Gaga’s benefit. It’s “too much,” classic camp.

In the end, though, I tend to think everyone emerges a winner, especially with 15 million hits and counting. Everything about “Telephone” is very strange, but it’s Gaga-strange, which is the best, most marketable kind of strange around.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

12 Comments

  1. Brian March 15, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Great point you made here…

    “The brands most prominently featured in the video are the ones who have to work the hardest to stay hip: it’s HP not Apple, Virigin Mobile not AT&T. It’s the brands people my age either don’t use, have become skeptical of, or find too old-sounding: Wonder Bread, Polaroid, Miracle Whip, Chevy.”

    However, on the Polaroid front… they recently tapped her as Creative Director. AdAge touches on it in this article: http://adage.com/digitalalist10/article?article_id=142210

  2. Aymar Jean Christian March 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for that!

    Um, PS, how come I’ve never been to your website? We need to talk about design (for me).

  3. Mark Muskelly April 17, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Madonna is one of the best loved celebrities in history. I definitely wish she keeps on singing.

  4. az April 26, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Maybe she needs to get money back for the jets she bought…So in order to save money on the video she used product placement.

  5. Laurinda Hammarlund September 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    We love Gaga! (and Trey Songz!)

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