'Simpsons' Selling Out - In Funny, Satirical, Hip Ads

By Tom Maurstad

© Tacoma News Tribune, October 13, 2000.

In its 10th anniversary year, "The Simpsons" can be summed up in two simple sentences: "The Simpsons" is television at its coolest and most cutting-edge. "The Simpsons" is television at its most commercial and exploited.

For baby boomers who came of age with hippie idealism, that can seem a strange situation. Cutting-edge and commercial? Isn't it supposed to be one or the other?

Not anymore.

In today's consumer culture, selling out is no longer a sin. In fact, selling out is just fine. It's even good - the whole point, really. The only sin is in selling out stupidly or without any style. You see this inside-outing of the old cultural order, the commercializing of cool, all over the media map - the transformation of the Internet into a marketplace, for instance. But as with so many pop culture trends, television is ground zero.

Just look (and listen) to all the ultracool music playing as the soundtracks of prime-time commercials. Cutting-edge artists such as Air and Crystal Method provide the music for commercials from cars to cosmetics. Even middle-age hipster Sting has taken his own stylish swing at the trend by contributing to a commercial for a luxury sedan (Jaguar) that is simultaneously a music video, complete with artist-and-album information in the lower-left corner of the screen.

And in a perfectly postmodern way, it's a family of cartoons leading us into this joy-of-selling-out age. Since "The Simpsons" began - first as recurring shorts on the long-gone "Tracey Ullman Show," and now as Fox TV's longest-running hit series - the show has been unwaveringly smart, funny and creative, cultivating legions of fans who recite lines of dialogue like Bible verses.

But also from the beginning, "The Simpsons" was ready-made to be sold out.

"('Simpsons' creator) Matt Groening has always taken the show's commercial applications very seriously," says Sabrina Ironside, Fox TV's vice president of marketing. "He set up very rigid guidelines. Basically, the rule is that we let 'The Simpsons' be 'The Simpsons,' and the product goes along for the ride."

That rule has resulted in a decade of commercials, promotions and corporate tie-ins that, more often than not, have been as funny as the show. More important is that even when they weren't, any "Simpsons"-related advertising has stayed true to the show's silly and satiric spirit.

Consider, for example, the long-running series of commercials for Butterfingers, starring various members of "The Simpsons" clan. Funny, fast and sharp, they are like miniepisodes of the show. And with good reason.

"Nestle has been with the show since it was part of 'Tracey Ullman,'" Ironside says. "We came up with the concept. Writers from the show worked on the spots."

That's state-of-the-art selling out, "Simpsons"-style, and you don't have to watch TV to experience it. People tune in to "The Simpsons" every time they see billboards showing Bart taking aim with his trusty slingshot. It's part of the cartoon family's latest campaign, this time for Southland Corp. and 7-Eleven.

"We were looking for something to wrap our summer around, to promote products like our Big Gulps and Fruit Coolers," says Nancy Smith, Southland's vice president of marketing.

"The 'Simpsons' team really led this campaign. They pitched it to us. They sent us a 5-inch-thick binder, the show's style guide, for our agency to use. A real back-and-forth process.

"The result is a campaign that was a lot of fun and really connected with an important core of customers, which is 18- to 34-year-olds."

Fun is the key ingredient. Whether it's a cartoon-crazy customized bus touring the country to promote Barq's Root Beer or the "Simpsons"-themed passenger jet used by Western Pacific, every commercial appearance is like another installment of the show.

"Marketers want to break through the clutter and they know they can with 'The Simpsons,'" Ironside says.

"And for us, 'The Simpsons' are like our Mickey Mouse - with an edge. ...

"Really, I'd say at least half the time it's us going to a company with a commercial concept rather than them coming to us."

In this way, "The Simpsons" help whisk us into a world where selling out is performance art. So welcome to the age of, to borrow Homer's signature phrase, do(ug)h.

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Last updated on May 12, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (