Behind Those Corporate Prince Tributes

Courtesy of General Motors

Chevrolet quoted Prince's 1983 hit "Little Red Corvette" in an ad that risked backlash from grieving fans, but didn't. General Mills wasn't so lucky.

In a culture where rampant product placement makes some tentpoles seem more like elaborate co-branding strategies than movies (see Jurassic World and Mercedes-Benz, among others), corporations are becoming increasingly comfortable associating their brands with the deaths of beloved celebrities.

It wasn't long before the online tributes to Prince following his death last Thursday included corporations turning their social media portals purple for the artist, whose animosity toward corporate control was such that he once changed his name to a glyph in order to thwart Warner Bros. Records.

Minneapolis-based 3M turned its logo purple and added a teardrop, while General Mills, also based in Minneapolis, posted purple-tinged tributes on behalf of Cheerios ("Rest in Peace," with the dot of the "i" replaced with a Cheerio) and Hamburger Helper (a portrait of Prince accompanied by lugubrious copy invoking the brand's glove mascot).

The Twitter response to the General Mills tributes was swift and brutal — "hey guys, Prince died, BUT PLEASE DON"T FORGET ABOUT CHEERIOS," was typical — and the cereal-maker removed them and issued a mea culpa that it had wanted to "acknowledge the loss of a musical legend" in the corporation's hometown but "quickly decided that we didn't want the [Cheerios] tweet to be misinterpreted and removed it out of respect for Prince and those mourning." 

Social media users are quick to punish brands perceived to be exploiting a hot trending topic, especially when the brand has a tenuous connection with the departed star, Patrick Hanlon, founder and CEO of the global branding company Thinktopia, tells The Hollywood Reporter

"Everyone is climbing on the death wagon, and that's understandable because that's where the audience is, that's where the clicks are," he said. "But it's disingenuous, and it's borrowed interest. Cheerios and Prince shared the same city but not the same values. These companies are borrowing from the shared passions, good will and shared sorrow of Prince's brand community. And after the second and third and fourth corporation, don't think that the grieving community doesn't see through that."

General Motors had better luck with its ad depicting a vintage Corvette and the headline "Baby, That Was Much Too Fast," a paraphrase of "Baby, you're much too fast," from Prince's 1983 hit "Little Red Corvette," that first appeared the afternoon of Prince's death.

The ad ran ran in six newspapers, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Detroit Free Press as well as on Chevrolet's Twitter and Facebook pages.

Conceived by Chevrolet in consultation with Commonwealth/McCann, the company's ad agency, the tribute was praised by Adweek as "a lovely minimalist message from a brand that the singer himself helped to immortalize," and it was mostly favorably received online and elsewhere.

The fact that Prince name-checked "Corvette" no fewer than 14 times in the song, along with the ad's circumspect layout — Prince is not mentioned by name, just the legend "1958-2016" — may have helped inoculate Chevrolet from the abuse heaped on General Mills. 

"Prince borrowed from the ethos and iconography of GM's Corvette to bring meaning to 'Little Red Corvette,' so it's entirely appropriate for GM to honor the artist and the man," said Hanlon. (In a statement, Chevrolet said, "We felt it was fitting to pay tribute to a true music icon that will be forever connected to one of our most celebrated models.")

David Bowie's death in January provided a preview of the perils corporations potentially face when they associate their brands with the death of a celebrity. Levis, Diesel, Vera Wang, Google and even London Heathrow ("Ground control to Major Tom ...") posted Bowie tributes on Twitter mostly without major blowback.

But Crocs removed a Twitter post depicting Bowie's trademark lightning bolt superimposed over one of the company's shoes and the copy "your magic will be missed but your inspiration lives on forever #davidbowie" within minutes after an avalanche of excoriating comments from Twitter users. "I'll never forget when Bowie sang, 'Put on your rubber perforated slip-on shoes and dance the blues,'" read one.

Don't expect corporations to resist comingling their brands with the equity of departed stars anytime soon.

"I think everyone got revved up around Bowie’s death and possibly felt they had missed out and suffered a lost opportunity when they didn’t pile on," said Hanlon. "Prince gave them a second chance."

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