Thursday, December 06, 2007

Freberg the Prophet

Almost 50 years ago, radio personality Stan Freberg released his classic, "Green Chri$tma$," which skewered what he perceived as the over-commercialization of the Christmas holiday season.

Jeff Westover explains in "The Story of Stan Freberg's Green Chri$tma$":

Long before the hotly debated war on Christmas, predating just about any civic debate over public Nativity displays or church and state arguments -- even before the term "political correctness" was coined -- Stan Freberg produced a work satirizing the advertising world's exploitation of Christmas. It was an instant hit and a controversial thorn in the side of Freberg's record producers and Madison Avenue. The year was 1958.

Stan Freberg was by that point a radio superstar. First appearing on radio in the mid-1940s with Jack Benny and the Armed Services Radio Network, Freberg was signed by Capitol Records in 1951 and produced parodies of pop culture's most brilliant stars of the 1950s including Elvis Presley, Cole Porter, Johnnie Ray, Lawrence Welk and Harry Belafonte. Freberg's work -- labeled as comedy by some, satire and social commentary by others -- was brilliantly produced and often charted as high as the hits he parodied.

Green Chri$tma$ used the familiar story line of Dickens' A Christmas Carol as the backdrop for a conversation between Mr. Scrooge, an advertising executive and Bob Crachit, a humble small business owner compelled to keep the season sacred. Set to music brilliantly scored by Billy May, the story is told through mock-commercials for everything from cigarettes to beer by advertisers who use Christmas carols and icons because "Christmas can be such a monetary joy".

Westover's brief essay continues, quoting Freberg himself:

"I listen to that now, and it's like I did it last week. I'm amazed that it holds up all these years." Freberg says. "The interesting thing is that after that record, both Coca-Cola and Marlboro came to me to do ad campaigns. And this is after the president of Capitol, Lloyd Dunn, said, 'Well, I'll tell you one thing, Freberg. You'll never work in the advertising business again.' I was just getting started in the field."

Ironically, Green Chri$tma$ may have marked the turning point in Freberg's career as he shifted his professional focus from radio in the late 1950s to advertising in the 1960s. Freberg went on to a storied career in advertising winning numerous awards and accolades for humor in advertising.

Green Chri$tma$ resonated with listeners but rankled advertisers on Freberg's show. "This record, of course was an attack on the over commercialization of Christmas," Freberg says. "And when it first came out some sponsors refused to pay for any of their commercials that were programmed within five minutes of my record being played. They felt that my record negated their commercials." So critical was the business of radio and advertising that Green Chri$tma$ received no commercial airplay prior to 1983.

I know that last sentence is not true, because I was a teenager in the early 1970s when I first heard "Green Chri$tma$" played on the radio by Bob Moke, the evening disc jockey on WEMP-AM in Milwaukee.

Moke often played novelty records, and around Christmas he played Freberg's "Christmas Dragnet," Yogi Yorgesson's "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas," and a Christmas episode of John "Mad Man" Michaels' "Czarnina Kid" (sort of like LA's Joe Friday transplanted to Mitchell Street, "where the streetcar bends the corner around"). WEMP, it might be noted, also launched the career of Alvin and the Chipmunks; according to local legend, Joe Dorsey, one of the station's top-rated DJs, was the first to play "The Chipmunk Song," which had languished without airplay and could have ended up recorded and quickly forgotten. (An alternate version of this story -- or perhaps an accurate story in its own right -- places Dorsey as the first DJ to play "The Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett. Take your choice.)

Anyway, I digress.

"Green Chri$tma$" is a one-act musical play, set in the board room of a Madison Avenue ad agency. Several advertising executives are discussing upcoming holiday campaigns with their boss, "Mr. Scrooge." Along comes a client, Bob Cratchet, and this dialogue ensues:
SCROOGE: What? Who are you?
CRATCHET: Bob Cratchet, sir. I've got a little spice company over in East Orange, New Jersey. Do I have to tie my product in to Christmas?
SCROOGE: What do you mean?
CRATCHET: Well, I was just going to send cards out showing the three wise men following the Star of Bethlehem...
SCROOGE: I get it! And they're bearing your spices. Now that's perfect.
Now comes a news story reporting that the popular energy drink, Red Bull, is withdrawing an ad campaign that seems to have been lifted right from Stan Freberg's playbook. Writes Jennifer Harper in Wednesday's Washington Times:
The makers of Red Bull, the caffeine-charged energy drink favored by ambitious athletes and all-night revelers, has gotten a crash course in religion, courtesy of an angry Catholic priest.

The manufacturer is guilty of committing "a blasphemous act," says the Rev. Marco Damanti, who hails from Sicily, Italy.

Red Bull went too far, he said, in an animated 30-second spot airing throughout Europe that depicts a cartoon Nativity scene: Jesus has a pacifier, and there's a fourth Wise Man. He has not come bearing frankincense or myrrh, but rather a case of Red Bull for the holy infant. The spot ends with a flutter of flying angels, singing "Alleluia" and telling viewers, "Red Bull gives you wings."
Harper notes that this is not the first time advertisers have run afoul of church authorities:
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights took on Unilever in 2001 for substituting onion dip and corn chips for Communion wafers in a print ad for Lipton's Onion Soup Mix. The Kohler Co. company also got into trouble by using an image taken from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel to peddle toilets — the hand of God reaches out not to touch Adam and give life, but to flush.

Catholics are not alone, though. A Volvo TV campaign claimed a new sports utility vehicle could "save your soul" a decade ago, drawing dozens of calls from "conservative Christians." The American Family Association and other groups, in the meantime, have organized letter-writing campaigns and boycotts of advertisers that take liberties with sacred images or flaunt profanity.

There is some dissent among the ranks, though. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a District-based activist group, claims that such hypersensitivity — particularly over the substitution of the word "holiday" for "Christmas" in advertising or public events — is simply fodder for "shouting matches."
I have to agree that the "onion dip and corn chips" ad (which I have never seen) sounds like it's in bad taste, but the Red Bull ad -- based on its description -- sounds like cheeky fun. The Vatican, according to Harper, has established some standards when it comes to this issue:
The Catholic Church takes an official stand against offensive advertising that abuses religious content.

"Commercial advertisers sometimes include religious themes or use religious images or personages to sell products," notes "Ethics in Advertising" guidelines drafted by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in the Vatican.

"It is possible to do this in tasteful, acceptable ways, but the practice is obnoxious and offensive when it involves exploiting religion or treating it flippantly," the guidelines state.
While anyone is free to complain, or to choose not to buy a product with distasteful advertising, it seems to me that "obnoxious," "offensive," and "flippant" are subjective modifiers that will vary from person to person. (See, for instance, the "Looking Good for Jesus Mini-Kit.")

I just hope someone is collecting all these ads to release on a DVD of "bad-taste advertising" -- a perfect stocking-stuffer for a future Christmas.

No comments: