Can’t Beat the Real Thing: Pop Will Eat Itself and the Age of Ironic Advertising

By Brother Bill / April 23, 2018

pwei pepsi logo

The Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI) “Pepsi Logo” t-shirt, from the graphics campaign for their 1990 album The Pop Will Eat Itself Cure For Sanity, created by Sheffield studio The Designers Republic (tDR).

… their music starts from a point which is half in love with and half appalled by the consumer society that they’re necessarily a part of.

—Jeremy Beadle, Will Pop Eat Itself?, 1993

It was in 1988 that two-year-old English band Pop Will Eat Itself (PWEI) began a transition from guitar-driven pop-rock to electronic dance, a direction inspired by a remix of their cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Love Missile F1-11”, embellished for the nightclub with dance beats and turntable techniques by producer Robert Gordon of Fon Studio. Flush with advance money from their recent signing with label RCA, PWEI engaged The Designers Republic (tDR) to craft a visual identity to complement this new drum-loop and sample-driven direction for their forthcoming album, This Is the Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This (1989).

tDR had formed a few years earlier designing gig-flyers before graduating to album sleeve art (it was their flashy covers for the band Age of Chance that had caught PWEI’s attention). tDR’s colorful, vaguely futuristic style both evoked and subverted corporate logo and product advertising imagery. In a February 1989 interview with NME‘s Andrew Collins, founder Ian Anderson said he viewed their album sleeve work as “packaging,” not art. Their first sleeve for PWEI, the 12-inch single “Def-Con-One” (1988), incorporated graphic elements from both McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, playfully implying corporate sponsorship for a band whose very name conceded the consumerist aspect of pop music.

pwei back cover

Back cover of PWEI’s “Def-Con-One,” 1988.

But it was tDR’s repurposing of the classic Pepsi “globe” logo for the 1990 album The Pop Will Eat Itself Cure For Sanity that perfectly encapsulated, in one image, a sardonic view of popular-cum-consumer culture that was beginning to emerge in the late 1980s and would become increasingly prevalent for the next several years, only to finally collapse under the weight of its own irony.

By the early 1990s, an entire generation had grown up saturated in mass media as none other before it, immersed in 24-hour cable programming, music videos, and VHS rentals. Through sheer extended exposure, viewers had developed an immunity to the traditional polished “sales pitch,” in all its guises. To these modern viewers, the slicker the presentation, the more obvious the artifice. Television advertisers had to adapt to this new skepticism. Cameras started “shaking” to mimic a hand-held documentary style, an attempt to lend their message a patina of unrehearsed, caught-on-the-fly verisimilitude that would appeal to this new breed of consumer (one early trailblazer being a 1988 Dockers jeans ad in which the camera veered wildly around a group of men having a seemingly unscripted conversation about everything but the pants they were ostensibly selling.)

These guys aren’t phonies. Kids can spot phonies. They’re very smart.

Wayne’s World, 1992

The entertainment industry reacted too. Films like Singles and Husbands and Wives (both 1992) interrupted their traditional third-person narratives with faux-improvisational scenes of characters speaking to off-screen interviewers, aping the confessional videos of “reality TV” programming (particularly MTV’s The Real World, which debuted the same year.) Ferris Bueller (1986) may have talked directly to the camera as an amusing narrative gimmick, but in 1992’s Wayne’s World, Wayne and Garth talked to the camera operators, signaling to their audience a self-awareness of the artifice of the medium they were participants in. These guys were in on the joke, and clearly not “phonies.” This need to signal authenticity by being “in on the joke” extended to popular music.

While the decidedly “inauthentic” rapper Vanilla Ice was being called out for reverse-engineering instant hits by sampling already popular recordings without permission (“Ya stole someone’s record then ya looped it/Now you’re getting sued, kinda stupid”; 3rd Bass, “Pop Goes The Weasel,” 1991), PWEI turned their talent for assembling tracks from bits and pieces of other artists (a drumbeat here, a bassline there) into a mission statement writ large in capital letters encircling their new logo: “Sample It, Loop It, Fuck It And Eat It.”

pwei liner notes

PWEI Pepsi logo watermark in CD liner notes from The Pop Will Eat Itself Cure For Sanity (1990), omitted from U.S. pressings.

Art, advertising, propaganda and religion are finally one and no longer distinguishable.

—Consolidated, ‘Product’, 1990

product telstar

Other voices in the burgeoning alternative music scene ironically embraced their dual identity as both artist and commodity. Nirvana’s 1991 breakout single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cheekily inserted product placement right in the title (they later recorded “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” referencing a music-industry term for an easily marketable single). Cover art for The Farm’s 1991 album Spartacus presented itself as just another consumable product (a detergent box, complete with ingredients listing “100% Groovy”) and Happyhead (Shriekback vocalist Carl Marsh’s side-project) urged listeners to “buy it” while dancing in front of giant UPC codes for their 1992 video “Fabulous.” Liner note photos for Information Society’s 1990 album Hack depicted the band as back-alley scam artists peddling recycled junk, a winking metaphor for the mercenary raison d’etre of the pop music industry. That same year, Telstar released a label sampler titled, plainly, Product, while a single of the same name by industrial group Consolidated decried their own commodification (“Art, advertising, propaganda and religion are… no longer distinguishable”).

Media saturation itself became the topic of several singles from the early ’90s, from Duran Duran’s “Too Much Information” to Bruce Springsteen’s lament, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” Ned’s Atomic Dustbin offered a prescription for media overdose: “Kill Your Television.”

While any universally recognized corporate logo could have served as source material for ironic commentary on the increasingly confused boundaries between art and advertising, it’s perhaps prescient that tDR chose Pepsi. The following year, novelty rock band Scatterbrain released “Tastes Just Like Chicken“, gleefully exclaiming “we’re the Pepsi generation” in a song comparing pop song banality to a commercial jingle, while grunge rockers Tad released a single “Jack Pepsi” with a modified Pepsi logo on the sleeve. A scene in the aforementioned Wayne’s World satirized product-placement while the characters sipped cans of Pepsi, the labels turned conspicuously towards the camera. The joke stopped being funny by 1997, when the Spice Girls launched a promotional campaign with Pepsi that wholly embraced the corporate collaboration without a trace of irony.

coca cola bottle

Coca-Cola “Love Being” bottle, designed by tDR, 2006

That same year, U2 embarked on their poorly received PopMart Tour, in which they dressed as costumed caricatures of themselves and made appearances at K-Mart locations across America in an attempted parody of consumer-culture that only managed to alienate their fan-base. And it was probably inevitable that tDR itself would eventually come full circle and design a limited series of collector’s bottles for an actual soft drink company.

Coca-Cola, of course.


bill-avatarBrother Bill is curator of The Haunted Closet blog. He loves spooky children’s books and old Halloween records, and his taste for pop culture ranges from Rankin Bass to Russ Meyer.

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One thought on “Can’t Beat the Real Thing: Pop Will Eat Itself and the Age of Ironic Advertising

  1. Pingback: “I Was Alive and I Waited for This”: Coming of Age at the End of History

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