Super Bowl: How Bob Dylan Jumped From Counterculture Icon to Car Salesman

Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan has moved from “Positively 4th Street” to absolutely Madison Avenue.

By appearing in a longer-than-usual commercial for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles during the Super Bowl Sunday night – and allowing the use of his wordy 1966 single “I Want You” in a separate spot for Chobani yogurt – the artist has cemented an idea that few would have ascribed to him when he first came to prominence in the 1960s: He’s for sale.

“You can’t import the heart and soul of every man and woman working on the line.” Dylan said Sunday night in the latest of a series of Chrysler Super Bowl ads meant to spark pride in America and the cars it makes. “Let Asia assemble your phone…We will build your car.”

Dylan’s likeness and music have appeared in advertising several times in the recent past – he most notably allowed Pepsi to do a mash-up of his “Forever Young” with a new version by will.i.am in the 2009 broadcast of Super Bowl XLIII. So it’s not as if jaws should drop at the sight of seeing the man who once railed against “”Advertising signs that con you/Into thinking you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done/That can win what’s never been won.” But his appearance in such a significant commercial effort marks once and for all the fact that this one-time counterculture figure has been completely absorbed by the stuff he once seemed to keep at a tremendous distance.

Indeed, advertisers would do well to enlist Bob Dylan. “Having earned his stripes resisting ‘the man,’ he has now become a cultural icon representing unqualified authenticity,” said John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. “Partly because his music is no longer current pop, there is no risk of fans perceiving him of being co-opted by big business. His position in music history assured, Dylan stands as an image of integrity, independence, and authenticity in a way that only a person with a long and established presence in pop culture can. I think fans will love seeing him. There will be no question of sell out, as there was at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, for instance. Dylan means quality.”

That’s a lesson many marketers have already learned. Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie retailer owned by LBrands, first tapped into the cult of Dylan by using his 1997 song “Love Sick” in a 2003 commercial – then upped the ante a year later by having the musician himself appear cavorting with models in a spot that debuted during Fox’s “American Idol.” Dylan is “so iconic and so arresting” said Ed Razek, the company’s chief marketing officer, told The Wall Street Journal at the time.

Since that time, Dylan has appeared in an ad for General Motors’ Cadillac, driving an Escalade. He lent Apple a boost in 2006 by allowing his silhouette – once a hallmark of the popular consumer-electronics company’s advertising – to appear in a spot for iTunes. Part of the appeal for him came, no doubt, from the fact the ad featured a song of his then-current album release, “Modern Times.” Most recently, he granted Jeep, also owned by Chrysler parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the right to use a rare 1962 recording of his version of “Motherless Children.”

Where the act may once have been seen as “selling out,” now it is often a means of survival. Put bluntly, with radio formats so narrow and music videos so out of vogue, musicians often have a tough time getting their work heard. For Dylan, an artist whose time in the spotlight was most intense in the 1960s, the feat is more difficult, even if he does continue to release albums that gain plaudits and criticial acclaim.

Creative Artists Agency, which represents Dylan, was unable to make executives available for immediate comment, and a representative for his manager, Jeff Kramer, did not respond to an email seeking additional information about the singer’s decision to work with Chrysler.

Dylan is not alone. The Who has allowed several of its most recognizeable tunes to appear in commercials. Wilco let most of the songs on its 2007 album, “Sky Blue Sky,” run in spots for Volkswagen. Even Billy Joel, whose songs have not been typically been fodder for marketing, let his 1977 hit “Just The Way You Are,” appear in a 2013 ad for The Gap. Perhaps the fact his daughter, Alexa Ray Joel, was singing the song helped him make up his mind.

Still, many of Dylan’s contemporaries stick to the belief their songs are made for a higher purpose than selling soda, cars or bras. “Ain’t singing for Pepsi/Ain’t singing for Coke/ I don’t sing for nobody/Makes me look like a joke.” Neil Young sang in his 1988 single, “This Note’s For You.” R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty also sit among the rock statesmen who eschew advertising. In 1987, Petty sued B.F. Goodrich for using a song in a tire commercial that sounded suspiciously similar to his tune “Mary’s New Car.”

Following those sentiments, some Dylanophiles are dismayed by his new commercial alliances, even if they aren’t his first. “While countercultural personalities have been used to sell products as far back as the 1960s, the idea of Dylan doing so was almost unfathomable,” said Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “Somewhere, Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s inspiration and muse, is shedding bitter tears.”

John Baky, a curator of a collection of Dylan material housed at Philadelphia’s LaSalle University, is among those who once expressed outrage at Dylan’s advertising pursuits. “I’m going to have to go blow my brains out,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 2004 upon hearing of Dylan’s appearance in the Victoria’s Secret spot. These days, he is more sanguine.

Those who express outrage don’t really understand the artist, Baky suggested in the hours leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl. After all, he has promoted himself and his music in eyebrow-raising ways for years, including documentary films, one of the earlier musician web sites and partnerships with The Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and The Grateful Dead. “If the 100 million pairs of eyes are smart they will just sit back and enjoy his Super Bowl commercial for what it is – vintage Bob. And truly, I bet he really doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” said Baky. “That is why Dylan can be important to us and worthy of America – one way or another.”