Product Endorsements from Beyond the Grave

A friend of mine, knowing the Beatles fan that I am, sent me a link to a YouTube video. It was a commercial (as you'll see below) for OLPC - One Laptop Per Child, a company which is trying to bring computers and the internet to lesser fortunate children who live in 3rd world countries. It's certainly a noble idea - giving the children the chance at something they otherwise would not have had. I first read about OLPC in 2004, and thought it was a brilliant idea - though, over the years they hit a few road blocks that held back the project. But even so, it prompted other companies - larger, more established companies - to produce their own sub-notebooks that could be made available to children in 3rd world countries.

Yet, the OLPC commercial disappointed me for a number of reasons. For one, it used a person who is dead - and has been dead for 28 years now. John Lennon never endorsed the OLPC, as it came years and years after his death - and yet, in the following commercial you hear a poor imitation of John Lennon's voice encouraging the purchase of OLPCs. It banks on the assumption that Lennon would have endorsed their product.

In the video he "says:"

Imagine every child, no matter where in the world they were, could access a universe of knowledge. They would have a chance to learn, to dream, to achieve anything they want. I tried to do it through my music. But now, you can do it in a very different way. You can give a child a laptop, and more than imagine - you can change the world.

The use of Lennon in the video was approved by Yoko Ono, who has full control over how Lennon's image can be used - and what products the image endorses. Would Lennon have endorsed the OLPC? Perhaps - but that's just speculation, and not really the point I'm really concerned with.

I'm more disturbed by the use of a man, a man who inadvertently became the image of peace, of progressiveness, of a world which could only be imagined. The image of John Lennon has grown beyond the man that John Lennon was - and it's an image people immediately will jump to defend. I'm a huge fan of John Lennon's music, myself - and perhaps it's why I'm bothered by his use in this commercial.

To begin with, I take a bit of an issue with the line "I tried to do it through my music," which I personally don't believe is accurate at all. The man wrote a couple of songs that were more politically inclined such as Imagine and Working Class Hero. Outside of those few songs though, he wrote about love, and about life. As he once told a fan, who was praising him for his music, and was saying that Lennon was speaking to him - as though the songs were written for him - Lennon replied with: "I wrote the songs for myself. I wrote about my life, and my feelings. If you liked it, great. But the songs weren't written for you, or for anybody." Of course, I'm paraphrasing - but for the actual reply, check out the Instant Karma DVD. His songs were not attempts to allow children to "have a chance to learn, to dream, to achieve anything they want..." Of course, he would have been a strong advocate, I'm sure. But the songs were just songs, plain and simple.

I'm more surprised at the use of his image, by OLPC and the allowing of it by Ono. In a way, OLPC is tapping into our collective admiration for Lennon (as a clarifying point, I mean Lennon the image, and not necessarily Lennon the man) as a means to convey it's message to us. Like any company which hires an iconic figure, they're just hoping that figure can bring about customers - however, in this case, the figure has had no real say in what they would advocate.

Sure the OLPC is doing a charitable thing here - and was the first in its kind to offer it. But by including the image of Lennon in its ad, it instantly inherits Lennon's symbolic meaning. If Lennon were alive, he'd have the ability to criticize OLPC in the areas he found problematic - but in this fake-endorsement, OLPC adopts an infallibility that is rather misleading.

"John Lennon" says nothing wrong in the ad - it sounds heartfelt, though not authentically Lennon. But  you can't help but feel the ad, and therefore the company, are doing something inauthentic. I make no claim against their charitable authenticity but this is an overreach.

(Sidenote: I'm sure Steve Jobs would probably argue that Lennon would promote Macbooks.)


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