Media Literacy: Chase’s Bad Karma

You’ve seen it if you watch primetime TV here in California: the ad for the bank Chase, to announce their “arrival” in the state via their takeover of WaMu, featuring a cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).”

I generally dislike the use of classic songs from the 60s and 70s in commercials – probably from a mixture of a sense of violation of my childhood memories and a “critical media literacy”-inspired distaste for the manipulation involved.  This one is the worst in a while – perhaps since that Clash song appeared in an ad – probably because The Beatles and John Lennon seem a bit more sacred… or perhaps just because the ad is being run so incessantly.

The ad (which you can watch below) features a series of shots that dissolve seamlessly, rather than cutting, one into the next, generally with a central aspect of one shot – usually whatever is moving – morphing into a central aspect of the next. The sequence in the ad is as follows:

Man getting money from ATM – who seamlessly morphs into
man surfing – which becomes
a hand wiping a counter, which reveals a diner
the focus down the line of customers at the counter shifts to
a man holding a steaming cup of coffee
hot air balloons
water bubbles
boy swimming – doing the back stroke and then flipping over to do the crawl; the boy in the pool becomes
a motorcycle on a dirt road heading towards mountains (through what looks like Death Valley)
a woman shielding her face from the sun
the sky
a seal swimming in an aquarium tank with a boy looking on
which morphs into a man going into a Chase bank branch,
at which point the voice-over cuts in with “Welcome to Chase”
we then hear the teller saying “How can I help you?”
the voice-over returns: “new to California, but not to banking. Chase”

Over all of this we hear a few lines from “Instant Karma!” – the repetitive chorus from the end of the song [complete lyrics]:

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah, we all shine on
On and on and on, on and on

And somewhere in almost every shot is Chase’s blue logo, the only spot of color in the black and white images, usually appearing as the sun – “shining on” each scene.

It’s actually a great ad when you look at it this closely – very crafted, very smart, as I hope to demonstrate.

Like many ads, it operates primarily through the principle of montage – a term which comes from the French for “putting together.” In traditional narrative cinema – Hollywood films – montages function almost exclusively as a way of compressing a narrative, of telling a lot of story in a little time. For instance, in the romantic comedy Notting Hill, we see a sequence of shots of Hugh Grant walking through his neighborhood – there are flowers in one, it snows in another, flowers again – from which we infer the passing of a lot of time, a year, during which he is alone. Or more basically, a film might show a series of shots each showing a different time on the clock or a different page of a calendar – again, time passing. [For a more detailed discussion of montage in film, with additional examples, see the Wikipedia entry.]

Ads often use montage in a way that is closer to the montage style articulated by filmmakers in the early days of Soviet cinema [here], by such filmmakers as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. As used in early Soviet cinema, the meaning of the montage is not a simple tale being show in highly compressed form. Rather than the shots making up a condensed narrative sequence (a story), the shots are casually and temporally unrelated – the meaning of the shots is conceptual or intellectual, and generated by the juxtaposition of shots through a process of construction, of meaning-making.

Human beings are story-telling and pattern-making animals. Confronted by a smear of lights in the night sky, we create hunters and bears,  kitchen utensils and love stories. We read the future in a mess of tea leaves or entrails. Montage – Soviet or Hollywood – takes advantage of those story-telling and pattern-making tendencies. Confronted by a series of images we naturally and unconsciously generate stories and meanings.

The meaning of the montage in the Chase ad is not difficult to extract. The ad is to introduce Californians to Chase – since Chase has just moved into the state via its acquisition of WaMu in the recent financial meltdown. This – at least the introduction angle – is spelled out in the voice-over at the end of the ad.

But what the ad shows is not a series of shots of Chase doing its thing. One can imagine such an ad – say, one emphasizing Chase’s long history: images of banking in the 19th century, gradually getting more modern – showing, as the voice-over at the end states, that Chase is not new to banking. That would be a different ad.

What we get here is more subtle and indirect, and smarter. The ad consists of a series of shots about California rather than about Chase – shots emphasizing positive qualities associated with the state. Qualities like health, freedom and nature (and coffee). Surfing and swimming, hot air balloons and motorcycles, mountains and the sea. And presiding over it all, Chase.  In the form of the Chase logo /  sun, which shines “on and on and on.” And in the way that the content of the ad – those shots of California health and freedom, motorcycling in Death Valley and surfing in the Pacific and so on – is book-ended by Chase – by the ATM at the beginning and the bank branch at the end.

The meaning of the ad, then, is this: Chase shares the interests and values of California – your values. Chase embraces – and contains – life in California. The meaning of the images is somewhat different from that of the voice-over at the end, and more powerful. The voice-over says Chase is new to California, but the images show Chase as already completely integrated with the state, containing it, and presiding over it like the beneficent, life-giving sun. Chase is as much a part of California as the surf, sun and Sierras. So naturally you should give them your money.

Like I said, it’s a smart and crafty ad.

What about the use of Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” though – is it just there for the “shine on” – sun as logo connection? I don’t think so. Music and smell are processed by the brain in different ways to images and language. They have more immediate access to our memories and emotions, and are powerfully evocative – as in a Proustian moment, where a smell or taste can bring vivid childhood memories flooding back. Or in the relative ease with which we memorize a song as compared with the same amount of words in spoken form. Ad creators know cognitive science research, know about music’s power to evoke memory and emotion, just as they know the research on the calming effect of green interiors (exploited so effectively by the Lowe’s ad for Valspar paint I discussed previously).

This Chase ad uses the Lennon song to plug into our memories – or at least the memories of the 40 and up crowd – of The Beatles and John Lennon, and all the associations we have with them – of youth, of freedom, of rebellion.  Positive associations which the music evokes, and which are also linked to California. Through a principle like that of montage – by juxtaposition – those associations are then linked with Chase by the ad.

Smart and crafty.

Analysing an ad like this is really little more than a form of reverse engineering. We take the ad, pick it apart for the way it does its meaning-making, and end up with something approximating the pitch that an ad agency might have made for the ad – “We’ll show a series of shots of the California lifestyle, Beach Boys and all that, with the Chase logo as the sun in each shot – and we’ll have a Beatles song playing – showing how cool and California Chase is.” Something like that. So we are not really getting at any hidden truths – we are just recovering the methods the ad creators use to sell us whatever they are selling us.  But it’s a revealing process, nonetheless – a demystification.

Occasionally, this kind of analysis will throw up meanings that we suspect were not really intended by the ad creators – as for example with the gender discourse in Lowe’s “calming green” ad – refractory meanings that don’t speak to the central, overt purpose of the ad – to sell, always to sell. Sometimes this can have to do with overlooked associations of the images being used – and sometimes it is just chance, as when an ad features something that suddenly becomes notorious. Recently ads for an episode of the TV show “Mental” featuring David Carradine took on new, unintended overtones when his death was made public while those ads were running.

Last week, while this Chase ad was in heavy rotation, it was announced that JP Morgan Chase was one of the banks approved to pay back its bailout money early (so that it was no longer limited in how much it could pay its executives). It wasn’t a huge story, nor a scandalous one, but it did serve as a reminder that we helped – in a way – to pay for this smart and crafty ad selling Californians on Chase, and to underwrite JPMorgan Chase’s expansion into the California market via its acquistion of WaMu.

Chase received $25 billion dollars in the first round of bailouts of the financial industry last year. That bailout money was intended to jump start the economy by freeing up lending, but figures at JPMorgan Chase were quite upfront in admitting that the money would instead be used to make further acquisitions, on top of the low-hanging fruit they had already snatched up during the crisis – Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. [Read all about it here.]

If we wanted further reasons to distrust and dislike JPMorgan Chase – do we really need reasons to dislike banks these days? – we could look back at its role in the occupation of Iraq, when it managed the Trade Bank of Iraq [here]. Or earlier to when JP Morgan and Chase Manhattan were the first two US banks named in lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the Holocaust accusing banks of seizing their wealth during the Nazi occupation of France [here]. Or to its role in the Enron scandal [here].

One can imagine a very different montage from the one in this ad, a montage depicting these activities and the values they suggest: rapacious business practices worthy of Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life; looting Holocaust victims; profiting on the war in Iraq; supporting Enron’s shady dealings… What classic rock song would play in that ad? Pink Floyd’s “Money“? (“Don’t give me that do goody good bullshit.”)

I grew up in a Beatles household – my brother was named for the song “Hey Jude” – but I never really got beyond the music, never got into the whole Beatlemania thing. So I don’t feel like I have any insight into how John Lennon might have felt about being used as a shill for a mega-bank in the midst of this economic crisis… but I suspect he wouldn’t have liked it.

I know enough about The Beatles, though, to be amused by all the criticisms of Yoko Ono for allowing the use of the song in this ad, for cashing in, etc.  It’s always Yoko’s fault, isn’t it? Even after all these years, she’s still that crazy chick who broke up the greatest band of all time.

Here’s some reading:

Here’s the Chase ad…

And here’s Lennon performing the song…

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2 responses to “Media Literacy: Chase’s Bad Karma

  1. Actually I don’t think he would mind, since Yoko was behind it.

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  2. On the subject of “Why did Yoko allow this?” a perhaps little known piece of information about covering songs: Once a song has been commercially released by an artist, it may be re-recorded and released by anyone who chooses to do so, provided that the melody/lyric isn’t substantially altered and that the covering artist pays proper fees/royalties directly to the song’s copyright holder. Since the song in the Chase commercial is a cover, nevermind what Yoko is thinking about this.

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