Every year come February, millions of Americans suddenly become fascinated by television commercials, something usually reviled. Thanks to their ubiquity, high-price, high concept Super Bowl ads can serve as a fascinating cultural barometer.
Following recent trends, this year’s crop continued to go for spectacle, emotion, and cuteness over traditional methods of persuasion. Today’s commercials must strive to appeal to a populous that is cynical toward advertising, while simultaneously pitching a product. As it happens, one of the most subliminal and subtle examples of self-promotion in this new era of advertising was not shown during the Super Bowl. Rather, it can be seen masquerading as a mural, on the side of a loft near Skid Row in Downtown LA.
On the night of Thursday, Jan. 23, Mark Foster of Foster the People dedicated the massive work of art after a free concert in an adjoining parking lot. In the middle of his set, he referred to the mural as “a splash of color in the middle of Skid Row.” After the show, he gave a dedication speech, in which he highlighted his band’s motivations for creating the mural.
“For the last three years I’ve lived a block away from where we are right now, and it’s been amazing to be able to witness the cultural renaissance that’s happening downtown right now,” he said. “We wanted to make something outside of music that made this city more beautiful.”
The creation of the mural, designed by the LA-based graphic artist Young & Sick, is the subject of the music video for Foster the People’s latest single “Coming of Age.” The mural depicts what would appear to be a female model, bent over, and vomiting lines of multicolored, psychedelic stream of consciousness. To her left are a number of cartoonish, disembodied arms holding cameras and snapping photos.
Interestingly enough, this image is the exact same art that will appear on Foster the People’s album Supermodel, to be released on March 18. In fact, since the music video for “Coming of Age” was shot, the word “Supermodel” was added to the top left corner of the mural.
Of course, Foster failed to mention that the mural, which was commissioned to beautify the neighborhood, is perhaps the largest billboard in Los Angeles.
The young life of the billboard parallels with a high profile Super Bowl-style ad campaign. The “Coming of Age” video captures the campaign’s birth in a social media-ready clip. The free concert, in which the band also invited concertgoers to add their handprint to the mural, endeared the group to its fans, and yielded over an hour of music video-ready footage for their new album with the dramatic LA skyline and the mural itself as a dramatic backdrop.
The genius of Foster the People’s campaign is that they have consistently managed to retain the integrity and elusive “cool factor” that advertising tends to diminish. It’s the same type of image that established companies vainly attempted to achieve on Super Bowl Sunday by co-opting seemingly incorruptible artistic figures like Bob Dylan, Ben Kingsley, and U2.
Through their impressively subtle campaign, Foster the People manages to prove to its fans that they are altruistic supporters of good causes like Downtown LA’s renewal and the arts. Although this perception does not convey the whole truth, it cannot be denied that the billboard and the accompanying free concert are still more redeeming than conventional ways of advertising. In fact, Foster the People and their marketing team have beat the advertising industry at their own game in its most significant season by marrying subliminal self-promotion and cultural relevance.
Ben Schneider is a freshman majoring in international relations and English. His blog, “The Way We Live Now,” runs Tuesdays.