Earth, Wind & Fire Panasonic Boombox Commercials, 1980 – 1983

Exhibit / June 6, 2017

Object Name: Panasonic advertisements featuring Earth, Wind & Fire
Maker and Year: Ad campaign by Jay Coleman and the Rockbill marketing agency, 1980-1983
Object Type: 30-second television commercials; print advertisements
Description: (Michael Grasso)

At the dawn of the 1980s, soul-funk-disco orchestra Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) were at the top of their game. They’d just released their LP I Am (1979), which featured hit single “After The Love Has Gone,” and double-album Faces (1980). Both albums came close to hitting number 1 on the US pop charts and solidified the band’s already solid reputation as reliable hit-makers. The band saw its big brassy sound drop off the pop charts as the 1980s progressed—post-disco, smooth R&B and hip hop began to climb the charts, and EWF’s members went on to successful solo careers in performing and producing. At the pinnacle of the band’s fame, they appeared in a series of print and television ads for the Panasonic Platinum line of portable stereos. EWF were early adopters of what would become a gold rush of musicians endorsing products in a search for alternate revenue streams during a tight time for the music industry before the late-’80s boom, helped in part by the new Compact Disc technology.

In all three of the above television ads, EWF either come to Earth from outer space or appear in some otherworldly context. Far from being a cash-in on the widespread popularity of science fiction in the early ’80s with the rise of Star Wars and its myriad imitators, the outer space, occult, and ancient Egyptian motifs displayed in these commercials were long favorites of the band. EWF founder and leader Maurice White used the traditional elemental triplicity of his astrological sign, Sagittarius (fire, earth, and air), to name the band in 1970 at the crest of the Age of Aquarius. And EWF’s album art throughout the 1970s was a celebration of what would become dubbed by cultural critics a couple of decades later as Afrofuturism, which originated on the music front in the work and aesthetic of jazz composer and performer Sun Ra. His 1950s name change (inspired by a desire to reject the colonizing influence of his “slave name”) and subsequent use of Egyptian and outer space motifs on stage and in his music set the stage for performers a generation later, like EWF and Parliament-Funkadelic (whose famous stage prop “Mothership” now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington). In the visual universe of Earth, Wind & Fire, the symbology and wisdom of the ancient Egyptians and sub-Saharan African civilizations held the keys to monument building, space travel, and occult wisdom.

The boombox was a piece of cutting-edge technology no less important socially than the contemporaneous introduction of the Sony Walkman (1979). The more widespread availability of the cassette tape led to a revolution in music listening, both privately on headphones and publicly on boomboxes. Panasonic, a Japanese company whose futuristic slogan “Just slightly ahead of our time” jibed nicely with EWF’s futuristic bent, introduced this line of “portable stereos” that promised ambient surround-sound and a more pleasurable listening experience than transistor radios. While the ads all show EWF bestowing this futuristic technology on white consumers and listeners, the real innovative use of the boombox was happening in black America, as breakdancing and B-boy culture emerged from the DJ-led clubs and into the streets in the 1980s. With a portable boombox, you could perform anywhere. You could be your own DJ.

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