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The Price of Everything

Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl ads create heartbreak – again

Is Bob Dylan a sell-out? Or just a performer with free reign on his brand? Domenech Castello/EPA

On Sunday, legendary singer Bob Dylan was the face and voice of the 2014 America Super Bowl commercials, lending his voice to Chobani and the Chrysler 200 advertisers.

So Bob Dylan now writes songs to sell yogurt and cars to people who watch football. This is utterly unacceptable to many boomers, it seems. He has sold out his legacy, his reputation, his precious brand, they say. How dare he?

First of all, it’s his brand, not “ours” – and one that has been built, to a degree, on confounding expectations – so he can do with it what he will.

But what is a reputation and brand such as Dylan’s worth? Many millions and more, but this is true of most highly successful professionals and businesses. The brand of a company such as Disney or Coca Cola is worth billions.

Chrysler and Bob Dylan Super Bowl commercial.

Brands are valuable because they are reputational capital that matters to consumers in various ways, whether assuring quality or some caché. Brands are hard to build, and easy to lose. They are in essence a costly information signal that carries value in proportion to what it signals, which in his case means not selling out.

Theoretically, he won’t be able to do this again and again – or maybe he will. People tend to forget that in 2007 he appeared in an ad for the Cadillac Escalade, a vehicle made by Chrysler’s rival GM:

In 1965 he made a promise to a reporter that if he ever sold out, he’d do it with “ladies’ garments,” and followed through for Victoria’s Secrets in 2004. Clips of Dylan playing Forever Young backed a Pepsi commercial with Will.I.Am in the 2009 Super Bowl.

Bob Dylan’s 2004 commercial for Victoria’s Secrets.

At 72, Dylan’s getting old, and so is his core audience. His brand is a capital asset that is an input into generating income streams from, for example, touring, music sales, or appearances. But he does not earn money directly from his brand, only from what it can do (it is a capital asset in that sense, like a building that he might rent out).

Now at some point, as with a building, the owner will decide it’s worth more to someone else than the value he can generate from it. At that point, it’s worth selling. I don’t know what Dylan was paid for the recent ads, but I would hope a lot.

This looks to me simply like a rational choice, from the perspective of Mr Dylan. It’s his house, and if he chooses to sell it he can.

But the real issue here is the public disappointment that seems to be erupting through the social media. People are upset because they feel betrayed. Words such as “ironic”, “crazy” and cries of “sellout” are being used to describe his performance.

Of course, Dylan’s no stranger to backlash. His famous 1966 performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall was hailed with with the cry of “Judas”, with fans insulted the acoustic folk artist had “gone electric”.

Dylan drowns out calls of “Judas”.

Fans – it would seem – bought the music, listened to it, wore the T-shirts, went to the concerts, worshipped at that seemingly everlasting temple, and now it’s being pulled down.


That loss is real in the devaluation of a seemingly incorruptible asset they thought they had, and because of the investment in personal identity that fans subsequently made. But here’s the thing: that asset was Dylan’s all along.

You never owned that house; you were just renting it.

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