Published October 17, 2005
The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" ...
Songs like these, which once upon a time might have brought back memories of hanging out in the high school parking lot or driving your first car, are now more likely to recall Microsoft Windows, a family vacation or the latest Cadillac.
"Hearing 'Rubber Band Man' in those Office Max ads kills me ... that song was one of my favorites as a kid," said Jeff Gaumond of Hopkinton, Mass.
Advertisers have all but traded in jingles in favor of popular music in TV commercials. But fans are not always thrilled by this obvious play on their emotions.
“It’s the same thing as when a celebrity is a spokesperson for a product -- it’s selling out. I lose respect for their artistic integrity,” said 22-year-old Shannon Moriarty of Durham, N.C. “It’s pretty amazing if it can move you in 30 seconds; in a way, that is an art form. But when I can see it working, that’s not something I’m comfortable with.”
Electronica artist Moby ( search) famously said that ads were the only way he could introduce his niche sound to the masses. Sales of his albums spiked in 2003 after his music appeared in ads for Intel and Jaguar; he was the first artist in history to have every single track of an album licensed for use in an advertisement.
But after garnering criticism for licensing a track from "Play" for a car commercial, the environmentally conscious musician only partly appeased his critics by donating the proceeds to Greenpeace.
John Albert, CEO of the California-based music licensing company Albert & Co., defended artists like Moby.
"They have jobs. Putting nice music in a nice commercial isn't selling out. These are not mean, evil, horrible people out to exploit the world," he said.
"The reality is, most artists want their songs in commercials, particularly in the last five or 10 years. Record sales go way up after the song is featured on television. Most commercials aren't offensive, many are nice and cute," said Albert, who has been negotiating music licenses for 30 years. "[The artists] don't need the money, they really don't. They're proud of the commercials, they're pleased. Some are really cool."
Toyota had so much success with Sly and the Family Stone's ( search) "Everyday People" that the campaign spanned several years.
But many say hearing a song they love in an ad taints the nostalgia associated with the tune.
Katie Heller is reminded of her Big Day every time she hears her wedding song, "At Last," by Etta James ( search) — which is now being used in a cat food commercial.
"Oh, that's the worst! It definitely bothers me. It just cheapens the memory," said Heller, of Tiburon, Calif. "I mean, you don't have rights to the song, but you have rights to your memories!"
There are also cases where ads feature songs that don't seem to belong in any commercial.
Nike's use in 1987 of the Beatles' song "Revolution," for example, incited anger from some of the Fab Four's faithful, who felt John Lennon would not have approved the use of the song to sell a sneaker.
“Some people become consciously offended when a famous protest song or a particular favorite is used to promote a product — that conscious hostility toward the ad campaign — that's what [advertisers] have got to be careful of," said Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University ( search).
In fact, John Densmore, drummer for The Doors, recently refused to let advertisers feature Doors' tunes in commercials.
"People lost their virginity to this music, " Densmore told the L.A. Times. "I've had people say kids died in Vietnam listening to this music ... That's not for rent."
Connecticut native Joel Parks is also among those who don't always appreciate the throwback.
"As a child of the '60s, every time I hear music from that era, which was intended as rebellious and 'anti-establishment,' used to sell everything from cars to condoms, it feeds an inner cynicism that I don't like to be reminded of," he said. "Having said that, I recently heard Donovan's 'Catch The Wind' used to sell Volvos and was just happy to hear the tune again, though I have no intention of buying one of the cars."
Sometimes, the combinations of songs and ads are just bizarre. “Lust for Life,” a song about "liquor and drugs," doesn't seem to suit a sunny family vacation on Royal Caribbean cruise lines.
One of the most famous examples of such an odd association in recent years is Cadillac’s use of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” which debuted during the Super Bowl in 2002 and has been used in over a dozen commercials for the car since.
Lisa Pottger of New York, N.Y., said these ads in particular turn her off. "I get all nostalgic, then annoyed," she said.
The association was, of course, a calculated move. Cadillac was able to change the perception of the "Caddy" from your grandparents’ embarrassingly large boat of a car to the modern, sophisticated power machine that the engine warrants.
“Music does have this ability to immediately open up the floodgates of various associations and emotions, and what better way to sell a luxury car like a Cadillac to a baby-boomer than to evoke their rebellious youth?" said Thompson.
Then there's also the issue of using the song’s title too literally, a trick that many viewers see as cheesy.
The Subaru Tribeca SUV commercial featuring Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” where the featured car weaves through town leaving all other competing automobiles “in the dust,” is one such example of an obvious play on words.
Adtunes.com, one of the Weblogs that catalogues usage of popular music in commercials, took note of this strange pairing.
“Of course, there has to be a bit of irony in an SUV commercial that is using an acoustic rock ballad that is about the futility of material goods and success," it says on the Web site.
Alice Cuneo, West Coast editor for Advertising Age magazine, pointed out that while the use of music in ads is in no way a new thing, it has definitely spiked recently.
"There's been a big push in music over the past few years, there's been a revision in that," she said.
The new revision may well be attributed not just to the different ways advertisers are marketing their products, but to the changes in the way the artists are marketing themselves in a volatile music industry.
"The major way music was distributed was over the radio, and then people would go out and buy tapes and CDs. But then music marketers began to ask, 'How can I get more people to hear my music. How can I get them to sample it to see if they like it?' You know, Coldplay did a ringtone of a song before the album was even played on the radio. Music is also debuted in video games," she said.
But if jingles from 20 years ago can still be easily recalled and chanted, is it really so much more effective for advertisers to use popular music?
Most of the time, Cuneo thinks it is. "Music is a tribal, disarming thing. It can get to people in a very direct way that sometimes lengthy copy can't do," she said. "It's a key element in human nature, and marketing is about having people look the wrong way at the right time."
However, in some cases, the tactic backfires.
"You know, on the other hand, Mitsubishi ( search) had a really big music campaign a couple of years ago, and wound up firing the ad agency and was bleeding, and they have yet to come back," Cuneo added. "Part of it was a marketing thing — they were just giving cars away, with zero down and zero this and zero that, so that hurt them. But music can go both ways."
Albert said most fans are happy to hear the songs they love in ads.
"Most artists hear from their fans, 'Oh I saw that commercial, it was so great!' It reminds people and creates a whole new interest."
Jana Spoleti, of Chicago agreed, saying certain commercials make her happy by recalling her youth.
"I love the Hummer commerical with The Who song, 'Happy Jack.' It reminds me of my stepdad telling me to appreciate good music," she said. "It reminds me of my childhood, listening to The Who with my father and uncles, so it puts a smile on my face."
But at the end of the 30 seconds, advertisers are simply hoping that one moment of instant recognition sells the product.
"It works best when you are completely unaware that it is working," Thompson said.