Frank Zappa’s Experimental Advertisements For Luden’s Cough Drops, Remington Razors & Portland General Electric

Frank Zap­pa was kind of a con­trol freak. But the way he tells it in a 1968 Rolling Stone inter­view, if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have had much of a career. In the mid-six­ties, he took over the mer­chan­dis­ing and adver­tis­ing of his albums. “We wouldn’t have sold any records if we had left it up to the com­pa­ny,” he says, “They fig­ured we were odd-ball. One shot nov­el­ty a‑go-go. But we weren’t. We had to show them ways they could make mon­ey on the prod­uct.”

It’s that entre­pre­neur­ial atti­tude and abil­i­ty to take over that makes Zap­pa one of the most suc­cess­ful cap­i­tal­ists in exper­i­men­tal music. In 1967, he even found­ed his own ad agency, called Nifty Tough & Bitchin’, and made print and radio ads for Hagstrom Gui­tars, Pan­ther Com­bo Organs, and Rem­ing­ton Razor Blades. (He also record­ed a bizarre radio ad for Remington’s elec­tric razor with Lin­da Ronstadt—see a fan-made video below).

That same year, ani­ma­tor and film­mak­er Ed See­man hired Zap­pa to score an ad for Luden’s Cough Drops. You can see the pre­dictably weird results up top. Accord­ing to See­man, Zap­pa “request­ed $2,000 plus a stu­dio for a day with a wide vari­ety of instru­ments plus a guy to do cough sounds.” The ad went on to win a Clio award for “Best Use of Sound.”

After the ad wrapped, Zap­pa tapped See­man to shoot 14 hours of footage over two years for a film project Zap­pa intend­ed to pro­duce called Uncle Meat (not to be con­fused with the album of the same name). The film was nev­er com­plet­ed, and Zap­pa only released the footage on video in 1987 (it has yet to see a DVD release).

The growth of the award-win­ning ad into a rare cult film—that doesn’t real­ly exist in any final form—goes to show how Zappa’s musi­cal tal­ent for free asso­ci­a­tion extend­ed to all of his cre­ative endeav­ors. Every­thing he touched took root and grew into sev­er­al oth­er branch­ing projects, all of them fas­ci­nat­ing to vary­ing degrees. He joked that he was in it for the mon­ey, but the mon­ey he made in com­mer­cial ven­tures seem­ing­ly gave him the free­dom to pur­sue any idea that popped into his head.

See­man, who became a great Zap­pa admir­er, went on to edit footage from Uncle Meat into a “40 minute impres­sion­is­tic col­lage” set to Zappa’s “Who are The Brain Police” that Dan­ger­ous Minds describes as meld­ing “Zappa’s cyn­i­cal world view (per­haps prophet­ic) with a spook­i­ly psy­che­del­ic sound that cre­ates a per­fect para­noid whole” (see an excerpt above). Zap­pa didn’t do much more ad work after this com­mer­cial­ly cre­ative burst, out­side of the pro­mo­tion of his own records. That is, until two years before his death from can­cer. In 1991, Zap­pa appeared in the iron­ic anti-ad for Port­land Gen­er­al Elec­tric in which he says he told the com­pa­ny “I refuse to sell your prod­uct.” Four years lat­er, we saw the release of a posthu­mous Zap­pa best-of. Its title: Strict­ly Com­mer­cial.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In One of his Final Inter­views, Frank Zap­pa Pro­nounces Him­self “Total­ly Unre­pen­tant”

Stream 82 Hours of Frank Zap­pa Music: Free Playlists of Songs He Com­posed & Per­formed

Frank Zap­pa Debates Cen­sor­ship on CNN’s Cross­fire (1986)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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