Shortly after Memorial Day, I was at home, working on a few things, with the television playing in the background, as it invariably is; though, as often happens during these times, I wasn’t really paying attention to what was on TV. Then, I heard a snippet of the ‘60s spy theme, “Secret Agent Man,” in a commercial for Smith’s. What stuck out to me was that it sounded like the singer was saying “secret Asian man” instead of “secret agent man” (0:14-0:20). *
So, I rewound and played the clip again, and again, clearly heard “Asian” instead of “agent” (also, I couldn’t now un-hear it). Still, I was convinced I had to be imagining it. So, I decided to Google the commercial, to see if I could find it, online. And while I couldn’t find any sign of the Smith’s campaign online, it occurred to me that Smith’s is a subsidiary of Kroger. Lo’ and behold, Kroger had the commercial—called “Secret Shoppers”—on their site, on their Vimeo channel, on YouTube channel, and other places; and no matter how many times I played the commercial, try as I might, I could not find that missing ‘t’.
And when I Shazam-ed the commercial, it brought up “Secret Agent Man (Live at Whisky A Go Go/1966)” by Johnny Rivers. And when I listened to that version, sure enough, whenever Rivers sang “secret agent man” it sounded mostly like “secret agen’ man,” and in a couple of places sounded like “secret Asian man” (there’s just no getting around it).
It’s fair to assume that when Johnny Rivers recorded “Secret Agent Man,” back in 1966—whether because of his accent or his style of singing—he was not enunciating and dropped the ‘t’ from ‘agent’ while singing. It’s also relevant to point out that in the mid-Sixties, America was a far less politically correct place than it is, today (when someone in the studio might simply get on the intercom and say something akin to “Uh, John? We aren’t hearing the ‘t’ at the end of ‘agent’ and it sounds like you’re saying ‘Asian;’ so, let’s pick it up from ‘…live to see tomorrow’.”). But that was 51 years ago, and certainly not during AAPI Heritage Month. **
Here’s my question: Did nobody actually listen to the clip they were using in this commercial before disseminating it all over the country for use in what no-doubt is an ad-buy somewhere in the millions of dollars? There are dozens of people who had to have been involved in the making of this commercial, and dozens more who had to sign-off on the commercial before it reached the airwaves. Aside from the folks in the Marketing and Advertising departments at Kroger, there were the people at the advertising agency (DDB New York), the folks at the production company (Hornet), the director (the talented and award-winning Peter Sluszka), and all of the producers, editors, sound mixers, and their respective teams, etc.
Because while I’m no stranger to a classic mondegreen—I was probably twelve before I realized that the line in The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that I was convinced was “the girl with colitis goes by,” was actually describing “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” (not to mention that time during carpool when my mother had to tell me that Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was singing “revved up like a deuce” after she heard me singing along to “Blinded By the Light” and say “wrapped up like a douche”)—in this day and age, you just can’t go around saying things like this, even if it’s unintentional, or the result of poor diction, or you’re using a work that is more than a half-century old. ***
As I see it, Kroger et al. could’ve paid less to license the music and lyrics and have a jingle singer sing the six words (“secret agent man, secret agent man”) than whatever it cost them to license the use Rivers’ recording. Would that have resulted in an inferior commercial? It’s doubtful, seeing as few people under 50 are familiar enough with the song to discern the original from a decent cover—especially in a 30-second commercial, where only six words are sung—but would-a, could-a, Prada...
“Secret Shopper” Commercial
Client: Kroger | Agency: DDB New York
Produced by Hornet | Directed by Peter Sluszka
Get into it!
[Editor’s Notes: * “Secret Agent Man”—written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri and produced by Lou Adler—was originally written for CBS as a 15sec theme to play over the opening credits of the British television series Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan, which was being brought to the US. Sloan and Barri then decided to write a full-length version of the song, that, like the show, was called “Danger Man;” and when CBS renamed the show Secret Agent for the US market, the song’s title and lyrics changed from “Danger Man” to “Secret Agent Man”. Rivers’ 1966 single on Imperial Records would climb to #3 in the US and #4 in Canada. // ** Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) began as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week and was signed as Public Law 95-419 by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Then, in 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the bill extending it from a week in early May to the month of May; and in 1992, May was officially designated as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Finally, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed Proclamation 8369, officially changing the name to how we know it, today. // *** Originally written by Bruce Springsteen and released on his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (Columbia, 1973); Manfred Mann’s version of “Blinded By the Light” (Bronze Records, 1976) would reach #1 in the US and Canada, making it the only Springsteen-penned song to reach the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart. It was also the second of Manfred Mann’s three Springsteen covers—all from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.—coming after “Spirit in the Night” (1975) and before “For You” (1980).]