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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Viagra's new TV ad has got the blues: The Chicago blues

Howlin_wolf My 12-year-old son and I are the kind of stone cold baseball fans who manage to watch way, way too much baseball this time a year, first with the pennant races in gear, now with the playoffs underway. And no matter what station we've watched games on in the past few weeks, we've always seen the same TV commercial, over and over, touting the benefits of Viagra. Clearly the makers of Viagra have decided that male baseball fans, excepting certain 12-year-olds, are the perfect middle-aged demographic for the product.

The ad itself is very low-key, almost like a haiku. (You can watch it here.) A cool, graying guy in jeans and a T-shirt (think Steve McQueen at 50) stops at a gas station in the middle of the desert when his car overheats. He hops out, buys some bottled water, takes a swig himself, puts the rest in the radiator and he's on his way home, where's there a light in the upstairs window, presumably signaling the presence of a female partner eager for his arrival. The visuals are simple but effective, hardly in need of the voice-over hammering home the ad's message: "This is the age of knowing how to get things done." I mean, guys, you had us with the bottled water gurgling into the radiator.

But what makes the ad so memorable is the music. My son, who's a big blues fan, heard it right away. All the through the ad, groaning and growling and playing his harmonica, is Howlin' Wolf, doing his 1956 blues hit, "Smokestack Lightning." Obviously today's commercials use a lot of unusual music to sell products, but this has to be a first, to build a Viagra ad around a half-century old blues song that has been re-recorded a thousand times but was never a hit itself, except in the juke joints of Chicago and the deep South. The men who first heard Wolf singing the song would have to be in their 70s and 80s today. That's a pretty ancient demographic, even by Viagra standards. (Wolf himself died in 1976.)

So how did Howlin' Wolf, a gruff, imposing man who at 6-6 and 300 pounds was built like a defensive tackle, end up being used to tout Viagra to middle-aged couch potatoes watching baseball games? I finally managed to make contact with Jean Scofield and Marianne Besch at McGarryBowen, the ad agency that did the commercial. Scofield, who's a music producer at the agency, says they explored all sorts of different music, but kept coming back to the blues.

"For us, the blues just sounded truthful," she told me. "It resonates with people in a really authentic way. And that led us to Howlin' Wolf, who was one of the great pioneers of the blues. So he was a great figure for us to draw from. As soon as we listened to 'Smokestack Lightning,' with his unmistakable vocals and harmonica performance, we thought it was the perfect way to accompany the story we were telling."

Besch, who's an executive creative director at McGarryBowen, said Wolf's music radiated another key ingredient in the Viagra campaign--masculinity. "Wolf's song has a really confident vibe to it," she said. "It felt so masculine--it really communicated the gritty tone and style of who this guy really is." 

All that AdSpeak aside about confidence and masculinity, I gotta think that if Wolf were alive today, he'd get a huge kick of hearing one of his songs being used to plug Viagra, once someone explained to him exactly what the product was for. I saw Wolf a couple of times when I was a teenager and even in the twilight of his career he oozed sex appeal, always drawing oohs and aahs from South Side Chicago women watching him work his magic in the local blues clubs. In fact, if you listen to the lyrics of some of Wolf's hits, like "Back Door Man," "The Red Rooster" and "Wang Dang Doodle," you could say that Wolf understood the essence of Viagra, long before it was even invented.

Here's Wolf in his prime, all dolled up in a suit and tie, performing "Smokestack Lightning":



Photo: Howlin' Wolf with his harmonica in performance. Credit: Blue Sea Productions


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Nice post! You’re right, if Howlin’ Wolf were alive today, he’d get a kick out of having his voice selling Viagra, especially because it’d mean easy royalty dollars. He always was savvy about marketing himself, and in the late 1960s, he wanted to sell his face and voice to advertisers, but didn’t find any takers--a sign of the racism of the times.

And you’re right: With his hypermasculine voice, women went wild for him. As Bonnie Raitt said after meeting him at a nightclub in New York in 1968, “If I had to pick one person who does everything I loved about the blues, it would be Howlin’ Wolf. It would be the size of his voice, or just the size of him...He was the scariest, most deliciously frightening bit of male testosterone I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Scary is right. Wolf was shot, stabbed, and beaten more often than today’s average rapper, and when cornered, he gave as good as he got. After bedding a woman he met in a juke joint, Wolf killed her homicidal boyfriend in self defense by whacking the top of his head off with a cotton hoe. He also survived a near-lynching, a shotgun blast in the rear from his first wife, a butcher knife in the thigh delivered by a spurned girlfriend, an attempted shooting by a band member who later went to prison for life for killing a cop, and other mayhem.

If anyone ever was the embodied voice of raw masculine power, it was the Wolf!

-Mark Hoffman
Co-author of “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf”

Thanks for the tip -- enjoyed the commercial (I don't watch TV; never would've seen it without your mention)and love the great music. Hearing this bit of the music prompted me to dig out my blues tapes (yes, old cassette tapes!) and enjoy my old collection of blues music all over again.
I'm about to drive across America, from LA to VA, and great blues recordings will be great music for the long road trip across wide open spaces. Bring on that slide guitar!

That commercial is pretty cool. Like you said, 'Steve McQueen at age 50', gorgeous desert landscape photography, that cool blues music by Howlin' Wolf, etc.
Whoever made that commercial hit a homerun.

The use of Howlin' Wolf may be notable and unexpected, but the use of black music as the soundtrack to white stories/concerns is one of the most common strategies in advertising and in Hollywood, and I'm surprised your column didn't recognize that pattern. Krin Gabbard's book _Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture_ (easily viewable on GoogleBooks) makes the argument most succinctly, but the essential pattern is: white characters, actions, and emotional lives take on added richness when "soulful" African American music---but few if any actual African Americans themselves---are added into the background. Thus in this ad, the presence of black "cool" makes an already cool white guy seem even cooler. I'm not suggesting that the folks who made the Viagra ad are consciously "racist" or even that Howlin' Wolf himself would have objected to having his song used in this way. The point is simply that the use of the Howlin' Wolf song---i.e., the appropriation of black music and culture for (white) economic (and sexual) gain---is one of the oldest stories in American popular culture. Context is all.

Hey how does this compare to the guitar riff from Sandford Clarke the "the fool"? If it's not the same, its eerily similar. Did the ad agency say anything about him? I loved your article btw.


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