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Choice of a New Generation

In 1984 Pepsi-Cola released two groundbreaking commercials for its “Choice of a New Generation” campaign. Marketers reimagined Pepsi’s product alongside superstar Michael Jackson’s most iconic visual symbols and composed a slogan to be sung over fragments of the backing-track to his then-hit song, “Billie Jean.” Although merely replacing Jackson’s original lyrics about lust and revenge with a family-oriented slogan had the potential to change meaning potentials the song held in other contexts, it was the re-working of Jackson’s celebrity image and omission of key musical structures present within the original that allowed “Billie Jean” to acquire new meanings in the commercials.

On the album, careful voice-leading practices that pivot precariously between the natural and flat-VI underpin the score’s complex harmonic structures to reinforce Jackson’s cautionary tale. Pepsi’s commercials, on the other hand, skillfully pick “Billie Jean” apart, extract its most memorable themes, and stitch the fragments back together. Consequently, when paired with Pepsi’s overtly positive images, the reworked track noticeably diffuses the tension expressed in the original. By incorporating formal musical analysis, musicological inquiry, and formative cultural theory on advertising, MTV, and musical meaning in multimedia, this article contributes to growing discussions about pre-existing popular music’s roles in advertising.

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