Grunge, born down 'n' dirty, has devloved into a high-gloss sales tool

Generation X, these Doc Martens are for you. And this cola…this imported vodka…this $1,000 dress. Marketers and fashion mavens, desperate to entice the twentysomething consumer, have clearly decided that alternative music and grunge style are the lure du jour. It’s as if all Madison Avenue woke up one day chanting the same mantra: Wave a flannel shirt and they will come.

After alternative bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam became cash cows, it was inevitable that advertisers would milk the music and the style for their rebellious, spontaneous imagery, and they have:

· The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon have posed for Gap ads.
· A new Pepsi commercial, ”How You Spend Your Life,” features a young man dressed a la grunge.
· Stolichnaya vodka is set to release its second promotional CD, Stolar Tracks Vol. 2, featuring 17 tunes by alt-rockers like Dinosaur Jr., Belly, and the Pooh Sticks; the Stolar Tracks cover art prominently features a Stoly vodka bottle.
·Virtually every fashion rag in the country has done a spread on grunge, mixing ”street” clothes with more costly items (a knit ski hat with a $985 Perry Ellis dress, for instance). Even mainstream stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s have created grunge departments and display windows. There hasn’t been this kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the ’60s.

The real targets are not so much grunge lovers per se as the whole generation that grunge reflects. X-ers have grown up in the baby boomers’ shadow, but now marketers have belatedly focused on their taste-setting potential and their annual spending power, estimated by the Roper Organization to be $125 billion. Says Jay Coleman, a marketer who put together the Stolichnaya campaign: ”We’re trying to talk to younger, entry-level consumers. The people interested in alternative music are kids in college who are experimental in their tastes, fashion-forward — your bohemian crowd.”

The problem with using trendy music and imagery in marketing, however, is that it rapidly loses its trendiness once it appears in ads. Barbara Lippert, an editor-at-large at Adweek, says, ”Advertising keeps using things up that have an edge, that are new. But as soon as it’s in an ad, it becomes mainstream. It’s a cycle of American culture.” Alternative music, with its do-it-yourself attitude, has been as much a critique of the corporate state of rock as a musical style. ”In the ’80s the idea of a sellout became a moot point — a beer ad becomes a hit single,” Lippert says. ”Alternative music was a reaction against that, but advertising will co-opt anything.”

Still, while some may grumble about sellouts and co-optation, others see a natural ebb and flow of influences. Marc Jacobs, the hot 29-year-old designer who has created a line of grunge-influenced fashions for Perry Ellis, says, ”The hypocrisy drives me insane. Everything comes from somewhere else — even half the music from Seattle comes from somewhere else. And Neil Young had that look before any of these people were around.”