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Is Rock Going Madison Avenue? Well, the Whodunit

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The jacket of a 1967 Who album features members of the band in a series of parody ads. Singer Roger Daltrey is shown bathing in a tub of baked beans, while guitarist Pete Townshend applies a huge stick of underarm deodorant. Back then, the LP was ironically titled The Who Sell Out.

Now, 15 years later, The Who has done just that. Thanks to the band’s multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous is now doing the same thing for the venerable English rockers by bankrolling part of what is being billed as their “final” North American tour. The unlikely alliance helps The Who cover its overhead in return for lending the band’s luster to the brew’s youth-oriented sales pitch.

Not that The Who is the only counterculture group to buy insurance against rock’s current depression by going over the counter. Last year the Rolling Stones splashed themselves with big bucks via a Jovan fragrance tie-in during their summer tour. A Sony subsidiary has helped Rod Stewart defray touring costs to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars in return for sponsorship credit on concert tickets, ads and programs. Blondie’s sexy star Debbie Harry has plugged Pioneer audio products, and Beach Boys classics like Good Vibrations and Help Me, Rhonda are doubling as jingles for Sunkist and Honda, respectively.

Rockers aren’t the only hawkers, either. Good ol’ Charlie Daniels endorses Busch beer and Skoal tobacco. The Marshall Tucker Band has been sponsored by Ronrico Rum, and Earth, Wind and Fire is linked with Panasonic.

Some companies have long sought a symbiosis with the pop-rock world. Dr Pepper has underwritten an outdoor rock festival in New York City for the past six years, Kool cigarettes sponsors a series of major jazz events in the U.S., and Calvin Klein jeans made possible a free concert by Elton John in Central Park in 1980. What is new now, though, is the pervasiveness of tie-ins with the once anti-Establishment rock culture. A pioneer in the field of rock advertising promotions is entrepreneur Jay Coleman, 32, president of his own New York-based company, called Rockbill. “We’re a marriage broker,” he explains. “We marry an artist with an advertiser to develop a program that’s mutually beneficial.” Coleman, who arranged the Stones deal with Jovan and claims earnings of $5 million annually, collects a fee from advertisers in addition to producing “support materials” to plug the newlyweds.

The fact that the Woodstock generation now works on Madison Avenue has played a key role in changing business’s view of rock music. “Executives who grew up during the ’60s recognize it as an integral part of their life-style,” reports Coleman.

The music business slump has been another major factor in the commercialization of rock. Record companies, which used to underwrite tours because they yielded big profits in addition to record sales, no longer have the resources to offset escalating tour costs. Explains veteran New York entertainment attorney James Charne, “It makes sense for groups that want to tour to look for ways to achieve their profit objectives.”

That’s exactly what happened to The Who. “I was looking for a way to take a large production across the Atlantic without escalating ticket prices,” reasons Who manager Bill Curbishley. “The only way to do that was through sponsorship.” To find a suitable promotion partner, The Who linked up with Contemporary Marketing in St. Louis, which promptly placed a teaser in Advertising Age with this come-on: “Put Your Product on Tour…Capture the Young Adult Market! Sponsorship of the 1982 Who Tour of America will generate positive brand image and product loyalty which means high volume and high profits.”

After considering a variety of interested respondents, including a pantyhose manufacturer, The Who finally settled on a deal with Schlitz which featured a seven-figure cash payment and a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. “Beer is so compatible with rock ‘n’ roll,” figures Curbishley. “It’s part of growing up.”

Executives of the Stroh Brewery Company, which acquired Schlitz earlier this year, are equally enthusiastic about the project. “The sheer size of the opportunity was overwhelming,” says Stroh VP Hunter Hastings. “We wanted to target a younger market from legal age to their mid-20s, and one of the ways to accomplish that was to bring them something that’s important to their life-style—rock music.” Company executives took into consideration the 1979 Who concert where 11 people were killed in the crush at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. But spokesman John Bailey says that they “felt comfortable with the security promised and were certain that all precautions would be taken.”

There is nothing heavy-handed about the partnership. There are tour posters, T-shirts and TV advertisements, yet Schlitz banners aren’t draped across the stage, nor do band members sip the suds between songs. “We wanted to avoid crass commercialism,” says Hastings, “like having Pete singing our jingle.”

The tour is winding down (the final concert is in Toronto on Dec. 17), but the boys in the band are open to future commercial tie-ins. Daltrey is already appearing in print and TV ads for Bulova watches. And Who knows? “If Pete [Townshend] buys a car tomorrow,” says Curbishley, “and thinks it’s the best he’s ever driven, he might jump at the chance to share the experience.”