RIP David Bowie, marketing genius

David Bowie Space OddityOne of popular music’s greatest artists was also an icon of content marketing

This may be the most unexpected tribute you read to Rock megastar David Bowie, who has died at age 69 a mere two days after the release of his acclaimed new CD, Blackstar.

Before I start, let me acknowledge that some readers may feel like I’m sullying the legacy of one of our greatest artists by associating him with marketing. There are two answers to that charge. First off, art and marketing aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. You can do both. Second, if you can examine Bowie’s career, paying attention to all the times he reinvented his image and to the impact he exerted on fashion, without accepting that he was a branding genius, then you don’t know much about marketing.

Most weeks, I kick things off bright and early by posting a funny “I hate Monday” type of meme to the people on my team at work. You know the sort – oh god, is it Monday again?

Not this week. This week began with pain, not humor.

David Bowie’s death is tragic news for music fans, and one can’t help but be a little overwhelmed by the massive outpouring of grief on social media. From fans and fellow artists. From young and old. From people you knew were Bowie devoteés and those you can’t believe had ever heard of him. Every single testament to his place in the pantheon is deserved. There is almost no way to overstate his impact on art and popular culture these last five decades or so.

How amazing was the man’s career? I once put together a list of criteria that would help guide discussions over who was the greatest band/artist ever (since we all have these “who’s the greatest band?” or “who’s the greatest guitarist?” or who’s the greatest whatever?” debates, and they never go anywhere because the issue is really about what do we mean by “great”). There were something like nine or ten factors to consider, including critical acclaim, popular success, musical influence and larger cultural influence. Only the absolute best artists would be able to tick off more than six or seven of these.

Bowie, though. He was one of those rare, elite creative forces who scored on each and every criterion I could come up with. There were simply no arguments to be made against him.

There was one criterion that wasn’t on that list, though, and that’s how influential Bowie was on marketing.

One of the things I have done in my job is author what I’d call the definitive guide to content marketing. When we present the business development portion of this content marketing playbook, which we do for clients and prospects who need convincing that this is something they should strongly consider, we note that music videos, which had their genesis in 1960s, evolved in the 1970s and went nuclear with the launch of MTV in 1981, were landmark events in the history of content marketing. See, music videos are pure marketing. These short films can be powerfully artistic in their own right, but at the core they were designed as tools to sell the album. A 5:35 video for “Sledgehammer” was a 5:35 commercial for So.

In other words, MTV was the world’s first 24/7/365 marketing network.

No artist in history was as important to the growth of music video as Bowie. His short film for “Space Oddity” (1969) was perhaps the iconic moment in the early days of a new art form, and later efforts for songs like “Fashion” and “DJ” spurred the medium forward with their appearances on The Midnight Special in the 1970s. Throw in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and by the end of the decade the world was ready for Nina, Mark, Martha, Alan, JJ and The Buggles. (OK, maybe not JJ.)

Content marketing itself wasn’t new, of course – it had been around since the late 19th century – but this, art as marketing, this was something unprecedented. And archetypally PostModern. It might be a reach to credit Bowie with inventing music video, but he certainly defined it. An objective look back on its development and history makes clear that he was, by any standard, perhaps its single most important practitioner.

I’m going to miss David Bowie the artist more than I quite make sense of right now, and I hope to revisit his incalculable legacy in the near future once the sense of loss has faded. Meanwhile, sitting at my desk on a cold, gray Monday morning I couldn’t help reflecting on all he accomplished and thinking how he was even more of a genius than even his most rabid fans might realize.


  • Not to rain on DB’s or your parade, but The Beatles did iconic vids for “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” in 1967, a couple of years before Bowie’s work. They also did iconic vids for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” a year before that. Not taking away from Bowie or anyone else, but they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, as a friend of mine is fond of saying…

    • I thought those were all part of longer form films.

      • Tom Chromzack

        These film shorts were produced so projectionists could do reel changes. Many small theaters had one large format projector and a small (usually 16mm) projector to keep something going for the audience to watch as the next reel was loaded on the main unit.

  • Tom Chromzack

    Back in the 1930’s there were short films that featured pop music by well known performers. I used to repair film jukeboxes forty years ago. the jukebox had a 16mm projector with a carousel of films. The films were “Schalagers” German song hits. Very Oompah-pah with busty ladies and athletic men dancing and singing. Definitely sold more beer, Ja Wohl!

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