Ad Report Card

Paul McCartney? Is That You?

What he’s doing in that Fidelity ad.

here The Spot: It kicks off with a photo of a very familiar face. “This is Paul,” says the announcer. Cut to other snapshots of Paul McCartney’s iconic mug through the decades—along with some home-movie footage—as the announcer tells us that Paul has been a “Quarryman, Beatle, Wing, poet, father, frontman, producer, business mogul, painter, and—if that weren’t enough—a knight. The key is: Never stop doing what you love.” Eventually, we find out what’s being advertised here. “Call us today. We’ll help you plan for the next part of your life. Fidelity Investments. Smart move.”

This ad debuted during the NFL’s season opener a couple of weeks ago. Immediately, the British press was all over McCartney (even though the spot has not run in the U.K.). The Brit tabloids roasted “Macca” for tainting his legacy with vile commerce. Several stories trotted out a 2002 statement in which McCartney claimed, “We’re not in the business of singing jingles. We do not peddle sneakers, pantyhose, or anything else.” The headlines ranged from “Rubber Sold” to “I Am the Ad Man, Goo Goo G’joob.” American papers were a tad more restrained, but the Miami Herald titled its piece “Sir Paul Sells Out.”

I’m not sure that the concept of selling out has much traction anymore. The battle is over, and the sellouts have won. At this point, about 97 percent of Who songs have been used in automobile ads. The Rolling Stones appear in ads for Ameriquest, a mortgage-services company. Bob Dylan made a cameo in a spot for Victoria’s Secret underwear.

Those are all geezers, you protest—not fierce and uncorrupted young bucks. But when I talk to younger people, the sellout label seems not to exist anymore. They expect TV ads to introduce great new music. They don’t care when Oscar-winning actors turn up in spots for Diet Coke. To them, endorsement deals just seem like a natural byproduct of fame, and nothing to get worked up over.

I’m not quite post-integrity, yet. Part of me continues to wince when artistic heroes get sucked into the marketing machine. It makes me wonder what their work really means to them. It makes me contemplate the force of greed. Bottom line, it’s just sort of a bummer.

Paul McCartney seems to recognize this. It’s not like the Fidelity ad shows him talking into the camera about how terrific his IRA is, or about the great returns he got on some municipal bonds. The ad doesn’t even bother to say that McCartney’s a Fidelity client (and Fidelity will not disclose whether he is or isn’t).

Paul doesn’t speak at all here, or appear in any new footage shot for the purposes of the ad. The home-movie clips do serve to make the spot more intimate, and more compelling and watchable. (My favorite scene is of bearded Paul a-gallop on a horse. Also, I love any moment where he makes that patented “O” with his mouth and then breaks into laughter.) But they also serve to distance Sir Paul from the pitch. The grainy clips are over and the screen has gone black before the word “Fidelity” is mentioned for the first and only time.

The question lingers: Why would he do it? When Dylan popped up in a bizarre lingerie ad, it seemed to be in large part just an impish provocation, in tune with Dylan’s well-known penchant for mischief. But there’s nothing impish about index funds.

No doubt Paul is pleased to be paid for his endorsement. While Fidelity won’t release any figures, they surely offered millions for the ad. Still, Paul has a net worth of $1.5 billion; can money really have been his core motivation? Yes, Fidelity is also sponsoring his tour, but I’m willing to bet he’d sell out every show if he publicized them with flyers tacked to telephone poles.

I think Paul’s driving desire is for relevance. This is a way for Paul to say: Remember that bloke in the home-movie clips? The guy you loved so much? I’m still here. I’ve got a fresh new album. I hope you’ll actually listen to it. (McCartney plays all the instruments on several tracks of this latest release, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, suggesting the work might be especially close to his heart.) It’s odd that one of the most famous figures of the 20th century is doing mutual-fund ads just to stay in the public eye. But that’s showbiz. And can we really consider it selling out when what you crave above all else is to put your new art in front of your audience? *

As for Fidelity, it’s a no-brainer to associate yourself with Paul McCartney. Baby boomers retiring means lots of business for financial-planning firms. McCartney is the ultimate boomer icon. And I can’t think of any celebrities out there who are more loved or less controversial.

Grade: B. It’s pretty hard to distinguish among the massive financial-services firms, and this ad does help set Fidelity apart. But there’s a gaping disconnect here. How did we go from marveling at the life of a billionaire genius … to setting up a retirement account? Fidelity advises that “the key” is to “never stop doing what you love.” That sounds like an awesome retirement strategy. I will never stop playing squash on weekday afternoons, taking lazy beach vacations, and watching baseball on high-definition television. Now can I spend my golden years in security and comfort?

* Correction, September 20, 2005: As the result of some miscommunication with Fidelity, this piece originally said that the company used two different McCartney songs in a single ad. In fact, there are two separate ads, each using a single McCartney song. The ad shown here uses “Band on the Run.” Click here to return to the corrected sentence.