Targeting Mr. Rogers

by danieljlaxer

I’m pretty sure that when Mr. Rogers asked the musical question “Won’t you be my neighbor?” he didn’t have giant corporate big box stores in mind. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure the Neighborhood of Make Believe didn’t have a Target store. So you can imagine my surprise, and maybe a little chagrin, when I heard a pop version of Mr. Rogers’ theme in a Target commercial.

Canadian bargain hunters were very excited when the discount giant announced their impending invading. Little did they know that Target would be invading Mr. Rogers Neighborhood at the same time.

There was a time when I hated hearing my favourite tunes in commercials. It made me feel like my rock heroes were selling out to The Man. There were newspaper articles written in reaction to Bob Segar’s Like a Rock being used on a pickup truck commercial. I bristled when Canadian power trio Triumph did a Pepsi commercial leading up to their Thunder Seven world tour. I guess it was kind of the rock n’ roll version of what The Jacksons had done, except that no one’s head caught on fire. Years later I remember feeling just a tad disappointed when the Barenaked Ladies’ One Week was used for a car commercial.

But where do you draw the line?

In recent years several little known artists found invaluable publicity opportunities by allowing their songs to be used for commercials. I discovered Ingrid Michaelson’s The Way I Am, perhaps her most successful song, in a Zeller’s commercial. The Golden Age, by Denmark’s The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, made it big, at least on this side of the Atlantic, in a Heineken commercial. Roseanne Cash’s Land of Dreams enjoyed widespread exposure thanks to a U.S. tourism television campaign. Lady Gag’s brand new Applause is already on a Kia commercial. And where would Feist be without the iPod commercial that featured her song 1234? Or Jet, for that matter, with Be My Girl?

And what about the classics? A whole new generation heard Etta James’ At Last well before Beyonce sang it after it was used for several commercials. It made perfect sense to use The Kinks’ Picture Book on a commercial for Hewlett-Packard’s digital photography products. A parody of Donavan’s Mellow Yellow was used in a butter commercial. And of course the California Raisins famously covered Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine (actually, they ended up with a record deal, covering all kinds of Motown tunes.).

But some things are just sacred, right? I heard the Target commercial and I thought “Mr. Rogers wouldn’t stand for that, would he?” I may not have liked Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But I know what he stood for, and what he wouldn’t stand for. The new, pop version of Mr. Rogers’ theme song was recorded by a Canadian band called Dragonette. They’ve been around since 2005, and have a handful of records under their belt. I don’t know if they’d ever play “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” in concert, but they recorded it earlier this year specifically for Target, and fans of The Neighborhood are not happy.

A Target spokeswoman explained in an interview that it’s about community, about being neighbors. The U.S. is often referred to as “our neighbours to the south.” And I suppose the marketing implication is that Target has moved into the neighbourhood and is now part of the community. “Well, there goes the neighbourhood,” some might say. Certainly Mr. Rogers would be dismayed to look out his back door and see Target where he ought to have seen King Friday’s Castle. Would Mr. and Mrs. McFeely forsake the neighborhood shops for the great deals at Target? And how would Mr. Rogers feel about that?

Brittany Smith of the Fred Rogers Company told me in an email that since the song is still under copyright protection that she couldn’t tell me anything about how it came to be used in the commercial. Which is interesting because William Isler, president of the Fred Rogers Company, told the story to The Globe and Mail. “When we were first approached by Target,” he said, “we immediately felt very comfortable with the respect they had for Fred and his legacy. That is paramount to us.” Again, I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Rogers would have said about that. Would he have put his foot down and refused the partnership with Target? Or would his staff have been able to convince him that the monies they’d make would greatly benefit the company’s many children’s projects?

I can see it now. Syndicated reruns of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with a Target store digitally inserted in the opening credits’ aerial view. You’d be able to see it through the window as Mr. Rogers changed into his cardigan, singing the Target jingle. He’d open the kitchen door to find Bullseye, the Target dog, wagging his tail, waiting for the treat that Mr. Rogers no doubt gives at the same time every day. There’d be Target logos on just about everything. And Mr. McFeely would knock on the door and sing the new version of The Speedy Delivery Song: If there’s anything you want, if there’s anything you need, Target and Mr. McFeely brings it to you here with speed… because of course Mr. McFeely would have found himself a great job with their new neighbor.

There was a time when public broadcasting in American was under threat of losing its funding during the Nixon administration. But an impassioned plea from Mr. Rogers himself, in which he’d paid homage to Sears-Roebuck’s assistance, saved it. Goodness knows that public television was funded over the years by Mobil, by McDonald’s, by Chubb, and others. “Donations” from corporations like these have helped keep public broadcasting alive for 50 years. So how would Mr. Rogers feel about his company’s partnership with Target?

Mr. Rogers valued “Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” Perhaps, then, he’d accept Target’s help. But he’d make sure to keep them in line. With all the talk coming from the Fred Rogers Company about Mr. Rogers’ legacy, let’s hope they carry it as he would have liked.