With Tribute, Pomplamoose had built a sizable fan base, found a way to make a living playing music and even cracked the charts. So far at least, its revolution was working. But there was a problem: Selling songs online wasn't likely to provide the steady income Conte and Dawn would need to support themselves long-term. Both believe that the days when fans will actually pay for song downloads — instead of perceiving all music to be free — are numbered. And their MP3 sales spiked after a new release and fell off quickly thereafter. In order to last, Pomplamoose would need other ways to make money.

Watching Dawn in the opening seconds of one of Pomplamoose's Hyundai Christmas commercials, it is difficult to imagine the kind of hyperbolic anger and irritation the ad would cause.

Dressed in a gray sweater and a scarf, she sits in front of a microphone. The opening shot is cut quickly so that the car, while remaining still, appears to rotate behind her. As the ad continues, Conte and Dawn perform their usual diversions around the red sedan: He pops out of the trunk and throws fake snow. She eats cereal while leaning against a tire. They quarrel for the driver's seat.

Jamie Soja
Conte and Dawn handle virtually every aspect of Pomplamoose themselves, including recording, mixing, editing video and marketing to fans.
Jamie Soja
Conte and Dawn handle virtually every aspect of Pomplamoose themselves, including recording, mixing, editing video and marketing to fans.

Hyundai had been looking for more than just an existing song to use in an ad. It wanted a TV spot that would reproduce the feel of Pomplamoose's video songs. But Conte and Dawn wanted to make sure Hyundai didn't treat them like a label would. "I said, 'We can only do that when it's just the two of us in the room,'" he remembers. "'If we're going to do this, you guys can't be in the room.' They said, 'Great!' And at that point, we were like, 'Oh, you guys are cool.'"

Conte and Dawn shot the spots alone in their garage over three days, though Hyundai's producers watched via a live video feed. Dawn edited the footage and turned over the final version. She and Conte were more than pleased with the results. The ads started airing in late November.

The initial response was positive. The ads were generating a positive response, so Hyundai ran more. Then more. And more. Then, around mid-December, as the ads' rotation crossed over from frequent into ubiquitous, the backlash arrived.

"I've seen them on YouTube, and they seemed fine," wrote one viewer commenting on a blog post about Pomplamoose. "But now, seeing them five times an hour with their Hyundai commercial, I want to slit my throat and wrists."

The ads inspired streams of similarly negative comments across the Web, including on Pomplamoose's own YouTube page. Even a sportswriter at the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, couldn't resist mentioning them. "Pomplamoose is the couple who did those annoying, musical Hyundai commercials that played over and over again during the Bowl games," one football story began.

Vitriolic comments fired at high volume — some calling Dawn and Conte hipsters, some calling them talentless and some calling for them to be creatively executed — were a new thing for Pomplamoose. But some negative reaction was predictable. Here was a band that had hoisted itself to fame solely by its own innovative means that was now shilling for an international automaker. And Pomplamoose wasn't just letting Hyundai use one of its songs, as it had in the past with Toyota and a few other companies. Conte and Dawn had deployed their entire aesthetic for the ads. The spots almost exactly reproduced the style of Pomplamoose's YouTube videos and prominently featured the couple. And even those who didn't object to the collusion of a radically independent band and a big car company found something to hate with the ads becoming a near-constant fixture on holiday television.

But the commercials, like Pomplamoose's career, were revolutionary. Criticism of the spots focused largely on their regularity and on whether the band had tainted its image by allying with a large corporation. But for Grant McCracken, an anthropologist at MIT who studies the intersection of culture and commerce, the ads reversed the usual process of companies "force-fitting" cultural content to sell their products. "It really is one of our first glimpses of somebody like Hyundai saying to them, 'You just do what you do, and we'll use just what you do,'" he says. "That's a pretty big development."

Still, McCracken says, Hyundai made a major — although not fatal — mistake by playing the ads so frequently. "There's something about this cultural form that makes repetition especially deadly," he says. "It was charming if you saw it X number of times, and once you'd seen it X-plus-one times, you were really done with it. You just can't tax whimsy without it becoming the opposite of whimsy."

For Conte and Dawn, the Hyundai ads were both a payday — "We're making a comfortable living; we don't worry about cash," Dawn says with a laugh, declining to get more specific — and a way to gain fans. Although they agree that the ads ran too frequently, by the end, they say the project also informed — and tested — a big idea of theirs: that working with big brands could help artists survive without any creative interference.

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