Money Moves: On Hip Hop & Advertising
By Jaylin Paschal
When rap group RUN DMC took the stage at Madison Square Garden in 1986 and performed the song “My Adidas,” the advertising and marketing world was changed forever. Run took off his Adidas shoe and held it in the air as he rapped the words to their hit song: We make a good team my Adidas and me/ We get around together, rhyme forever/ And we won't be mad when worn in bad weather. The sold out arena followed suit, raising their own Adidas sneakers high and filling the atmosphere with an enthusiasm in youth culture that Adidas had never harnessed before. An Adidas executive was in the building, and immediately after decided to partner with RUN DMC to market Adidas and even design a shoe in collaboration with the group--a $1 million endorsement deal. The partnership was part of the push that brought Adidas from near-bankruptcy to being one of the most popular athletic brands in America. Hip Hop saved Adidas, and advertising has never been the same (Stoute, 2011).
Another early example of Hip Hop strongly influencing in-house advertising is the Sprite cypher campaigns. Sprite’s popular slogan “Obey Your Thirst” was birthed from a freestyle by Grand Puba. In a 1995 commercial cypher produced by Sprite, Grand Puba ended his freestyle by saying “First thing’s first/Obey your thirst.” The ad was so popular that Sprite adopted “OBEY YOUR THIRST” as it’s tag, and continued to collaborate with rappers. Today, Sprite sponsors the BET Hip Hop Awards’ cyphers and features artists like Nas, Missy Elliott, Rakim, 2Pac, J. Cole and Drake on their cans and advertisements. Lyrics like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Lyrically, I’m supposed to represent” appear on Sprite cans and bottles alongside images of Hip Hop artists. The campaign has been extremely successful, which is why it has been in use since 1995 (Stoute, 2011). The clothing brand and chain store Gap was also extremely impacted by the infusion of Hip Hop into their marketing strategy. Their 1999 commercial with a rapping LL Cool J was one of the most popular ads of the year. In this ad, LL Cool J raps, “I know you like your outfit stylish/ any other line but Gap is childish.” Their collaboration was powerful and smart, not only because Gap appeared cool, but also because, thanks to LL Cool J’s hat in the clip, it was associated with popular streetwear brand, F.U.B.U. The apparent cool factor of Gap brought in a young black consumer that overlooked the line before (Stoute, 2011).
One brand that truly understood and valued the power of Hip Hop in advertising was American apparel brand, Tommy Hilfiger. Hilfiger used Hip Hop figures like Aaliyah Haughton, Snoop Dogg and the group Destiny’s Child to sell his clothes to an urban, black market. This was extremely successful. In the year 1996, the same year of the Haughton collaboration, Hilfiger’s sales were close to $500 million and he had a mass appeal that reached from President Bill Clinton to “gangsta” rappers (Stoute, 2011). Tommy Hilfiger can still be seen on contemporary Hip Hop artists like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West.
Today, Hip Hop is used frequently to sell almost any and every good and service imaginable. From “back to school” themed Target ads which remix rap tracks like Salt-n-Peppa’s “Push It” to Kia commercials featuring hamsters dancing to “This or That” by Black Sheep--Hip Hop has permeated the advertising world. Hip Hop has certainly “earned wider Madison Avenue respect (Coward, 2015).” Even small businesses use the rap style in their jingles and Hip Hop references in their campaigns. Furthermore, it is not unusual for Hip Hop figures to be invested in or in partnership with major companies. Femme emcee Lil Kim worked with Louis Vuitton, New York icon Nas has starred in Hennessy ads, Producer/rapper Dr. Dre is an Apple executive, artist Jay Z and his music streaming service, Tidal, has partnered with Sprint and lyricist Snoop Dogg has appeared in Chrysler campaigns (Coward, 2015).
More modern examples of Hip Hop’s prevalence in advertising is the practice of product placement. Products are strategically placed in Hip Hop music videos to market to black Americans, a demographic which is projected to have a buying power of $1.4 trillion by 2020 (Weeks, 2015). In Nicki Minaj’s “Moment for Life” music video, she can be seen with Christian Louboutin heels and MAC lipstick in the very first scene of the video. Similarly, Eminem and Rihanna’s wildly popular collaboration “Love The Way You Lie” had a music video with the obvious product placement of Stolichnaya Vodka. Product placement is very effective, whether its designer belts or cell phones, and puts items directly in the line of vision--or indirectly in the subconscious--of potential consumers.
Why does Hip Hop work so well with advertising? Mainly because of the genre’s “materialist aspirations (Coward, 2015).” As a flashy genre with larger-than-life stars who have a tendency to flex their elitism, Hip Hop positions itself as a master seller. Hip Hop can sell a certain lifestyle, and when it associates specific brands and goods with this lifestyle, fans are bound to buy in. Because Hip Hop has the unique power to define “cool” without losing a sense of authenticity and rawness, it is the perfect platform to convince an audience that this product is a necessary component in achieving this status. This is all directly in line with the definition of advertisement, “a paid-for communication intended to inform and/or persuade one or more people” (Fletcher, 2015).
Furthermore, if any cultural force knows how to carry a message, it’s Hip Hop. Hip Hop has been the voice of marginalized communities since the 1970s. It has helped express political beliefs, comment on injustice, make statements about style and individuality, build neighborhood pride and unify groups of peers. The significance of this message-based genre cannot be understated in advertising. Hip Hop can aid in making strategies in advertising public-specific, or designed with one public in mind (Wilson, 2015). Hip Hop has always been very effective in tailoring a message for a specific audience; an audience that could be a target market for advertisers. For example, Jay Z’s larger-than-life persona embodied in his single “Imaginary Players” references brands like Rolex, Versace and Cartier, all while making it clear that he’s speaking directly to his peers, who are young, urban black men. This is how the glorified materialism in Hip Hop compliments the message-driven components of the genre; further suggesting that Hip Hop and advertising make the perfect pair.
This article was originally a research paper written for Professor Joanna Jenkins' Intro to Strategic Communications course at Howard University.
Coward, K. (2015, April 21). When Hip-Hop First Went Corporate. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/04/breaking-ad-when-hip-hop-first-went-corporate/390930/
Fletcher, W. (2010). Advertising: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Stoute, S. (2011). The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. New York: Gotham Books.
Weeks, M. W. (2015). Asians, Hispanics driving U.S. economy forward, according to UGA study. Terry College of Business. Retrieved from http://www.terry.uga.edu/news/releases/asians-hispanics-driving-u.s.-economy-forward-according-to-uga-study
Wilson, L.J. & Ogden, J.D. (2015). Strategic communications: Planning for public relations and marketing, 6th ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.