Listen closely, and you can hear Madonna declare, "I can do that," near the end of Gap's "Into the Hollywood Groove" ad that debuted July 30. Then the pop-music icon maneuvers her 45-year-old, baby blue cord-clad legs into a schoolgirl split, aping hip-hopper Missy Elliott.
It's an uncomfortable moment, and not just because the woman who 20 years ago turned in-your-face celebrity into a business model seems so desperate to keep up with the latest diva of the hour. Here's a fashion renegade, whose signature was once the cone-shaped Gaultier bra, now fronting for the everyman brand of khakis and pocket tees. "I can do that": Is it playground bravado or a cry for relevance?
Let's be blunt. Madonna isn't exactly piling up platinum these days. Her most recent album, American Life, has sold barely 500,000 copies since its release in April. Her 2002 film Swept Away was panned. As Hal Rubenstein of In Style magazine puts it, "Her film career has come to a whimpering dead halt, her last album was disappointing, and she needs to figure out how to get back into the public consciousness."
So Madonna is figuring. Or groping. In the Gap ad, she aligns herself with a rapper—and so the black urban market. She's selling her children's book, The English Roses, in GapKids—appealing (maybe) to quasi-spiritual suburban moms. She appeared at MTV's Video Music Awards sporting a militaristic black outfit, nestling her tongue in the mouths of her pop-queen successors, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (Britney sorta liked it!)—thus pursuing twentysomethings, gays, rebels, and who knows who else.
Plus, right now, she loves Gap cords. Young preppies, soccer moms, and office workers everywhere are in her thrall.
Well, okay, some of them really are. Former fans who grew up bleaching their hair blond and pasting black beauty marks above their lips are now dull grown-ups. The campaign is "brilliant," gushes Jeff Swystun, global director of Interbrand, a brand consultancy. "The Gap would have been too mainstream for Madonna's personality and brand 10 years ago, but people move on, and the identification of the world's grooviest mom with all those who aren't so hip is a good thing for the Gap."
For Madonna, though, marketing to everyone alive is a dodgy bet. This onetime mistress of reinvention once negotiated her celebrity like a game of chess—precisely by not catering to the masses. She sought out controversy. She sought to offend. One of her few previous advertising forays, a 1989 campaign for Pepsi, was aborted after the release of her racy "Like a Prayer" video. Now it's Gap—and a pitch for her book on Amazon.com.
You can't promise all things to all people. (Well, maybe Wal-Mart can, but that's different.) You can't be a pop icon and a spiritual cabalistic writer and sing about the flaws of American consumerism and make out with same-sex pop stars half your age and be the face of one of the most generic brands in America all at once.
Does Madonna really want to make her confused brand more relevant? She should take a tip from Gap: Get back to basics.