Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig published a book in 2008 titled “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy,” which hypothesized about the societal effect of the internet, specifically for the way in which it gave rise to the remix culture. Lessig recognized a trend in the rising popularity of derivative works that combine or edit together existing materials to produce something new. (One quick example is Pogo’s “Alice,” a song spliced together from sounds from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland film.) What was a hypothesis in 2008 became a reality in the 2010s—remix culture was everywhere. Sampling became an inescapable trend in music, Wikipedia became a de facto source of knowledge, and Hollywood was continually attempting to reboot old intellectual properties into new franchises.
At the same time originality was still very much present. In the opening months of 2010, Old Spice released a commercial that is still being adapted and repeated six years later. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” shot the advertising world with a bolt of manic energy, resulting in a privileging of the weird and the funny.
Originality was still present, but it’s copied and run into the ground with increasing speed. While Old Spice has doubled down on weird and funny ad campaigns, within a few years the tone-stealing derivatives have shown up less and less. Other brands like Geico settled back into controllable and innocuous humor, like this recent ad featuring Peter Pan.
There were, of course, still unimaginative campaigns that featured individual variations on fairy tales with specific products (for example Red Bull featured Aladdin, Rapunzel, and the Frog Prince; Security Service Federal Credit Union relied on Snow White, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood; and Sky Link used Aladdin, Frog Prince, and Princess & the Pea stories). But remix culture would manifest itself in television commercials with ads that featured half a dozen fairy tale types all at once, like this one from PNC Bank.
The ad depicts a wedding attended by unicorns, teddy bears, ballerinas, soldiers, hummingbirds, and magically blooming flowers. The father, who walks his beautiful princess down the aisle, watches as his daughter marries prince charming. In the end it turns out the commercial takes place in the mind of a father watching his young daughter while she reads a book of fairy tales.
Commercials like these are complicated by Marina Warner in Once Upon a Time where she comments on the fairy’s tales spotty history with gender representation. “Current fairy tales on stage and screen reveal an acute malaise about sexual, rather than social, programming of the female, and the genre continues ever more intensively to wrestle with the notorious question Freud put long ago, ‘What do women want?'” The PNC spot is perhaps a bit too Freudian as the father imagines what his grown daughter wants most as a fairy tale wedding, prompting him to open a new savings account to prepare for that eventuality.
With this question of gender representation in mind, this Christmas commercial from Marks & Spencer becomes almost painful to watch.
This commercial is a paragon of remix culture, as the main character morphs into Alice, Red Riding Hood, Gretel, a carpet-riding beauty, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In the first minute alone the main character has five costume changes and two of them manage to present her slow-mo in just underwear. Marks & Spencer posit that what women want are purses, clothes, and (above all) shoes.
When women are unmistakably in charge of using fairy tale imagery to tell stories the gender representation issues tend to be much less problematic. For example, an-all female college-prep academy created an ad campaign with the tagline, “Life’s Not a Fairytale,” which featured ad copy like “Don’t wait for a prince,” “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall. Be more than just the fairest of them all,” and “You are not a princess.”
Another playfully perverse challenging of these dubious genre tropes came from comedian Amy Schumer. In the sketch “Princess Amy” from her television show Inside Amy Schumer, the realities of being a princess are explored: you have to marry a first cousin at age 14 to preserve the purity of the royal bloodline and are threatened with death if you can’t produce a male heir.
More than halfway into the 2010s, it is clear we aren’t free from the same questions and concerns that have been raised by fairy tales for centuries. And for every innovative and subversive fairy tale-themed commercial produced, three (or more) cliche-ridden ads appear at the same time.