From Nationwide to McDonald's, more and more advertisements are relying on the power of verse to shift their products. But while it's easy to be cynical, advertising's love affair with poetry tells us something important, tooby Will Harris / June 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Though poetry famously doesn’t sell (or doesn’t sell much) it has long been used to sell other things. In 2009, to take a random example, Wieden + Kennedy made a television advert for Levi’s, featuring Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ being recited with crusty portentousness alongside footage of beautiful, denim-clad young people running through fields pioneeringly and making out pioneeringly.
Which reminds me of the Apple advert from 2014 showing iPad users in surprising locations around the world—from a military parade to a waterfall to a one-man kabuki show, as the voice of Robin Williams’s Dead Poets Society character John Keating rings out, talking about poetry and passion. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” he says, before—as in the Levi’s ad—quoting Whitman: “‘the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse’ … What will your verse be?”
In these adverts, cute is precisely what poetry is. Its verbal euphony and rhetorical conviction have been put in service of making a product seem more attractive, more necessary. The poetry is there to drown out what Allen Ginsberg called in Howl “the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising.” Poetry is the Auto-Tune which turns the shrieks into song.
Whitman is a writer whose name, if not his work, will be familiar to people. It carries a residual cultural authority, and was no doubt chosen for the same reason that Ford chose Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ to advertise their new Mustang last year, or the reason countless companies have riffed on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ (see Irn-Bru’s Scottish twist in 2008: “If you can bounce on six-inch heels all night/ And still walk home on our bare feet”). Popular poems and poets exist in a shared cultural space. Companies who use this work are implicitly trying to force themselves into that space too.
But there’s also a welter of trashier, made-for-purpose commercial poetry. This genre goes back at least as far as the initial heyday of advertising in the early-19th century, when rhyming stanzas advertised anything from shoe polish to haircuts. Warren’s Blacking, for instance, ran a comic poem about a cat confusing a well-polished boot for a mirror, “its surface fair,/ In lustre nothing lacking.”