Music in advertising is the most common technique for aiding memorability ( a word I didn’t think existed until I saw it in this article on-line) and hence product recall. So says an April, 2011 article in Music Quarterly. Music and memory have an enduring relationship, well after the part of our brains responsible for remembering where we left the car keys have been eroded by time.
The Internet (which never forgets anything) is full of lists of the greatest commercial jingles of all time. Who of a certain age can forget the Wrigley’s Doublemint gum twins, healthy looking female models figure skating and cycling together – 30 seconds of smiling togetherness accompanied by the song encouraging consumers to: “Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum”, surely a record for using the word “double” five times in one sentence. Juicy Fruit got into the ad game with the snappy tag line, “Juicy Fruit is gonna move ya”, making it sound more like an ad for a laxative than a stick of gum that sent your saliva glands into overdrive. And the super annoying MacDonald’s commercial for the Big Mac, introduced to the market in 1968. The commercial was a brilliant piece of advertising, and being able to re-produce the lyrics by heart became a kind of badge of honour.
But perhaps the king of them all was the sweet anthem for Coca-Cola, “It’s the Real Thing,” sung by a chorus of beautiful people harmonizing on a hilltop somewhere, the only TV commercial song to become a hit on the pop charts, done by, yes, The Hilltop Singers – minus any reference to Coke.
But companies with deep pockets could not resist dipping into the biggest bank of all to help move their product: the thousands of pop songs that baby boomers had grown up listening to. With the proliferation of more products, the jingle took a back seat to popular music that lit up the pre-frontal cortex of a legion of consumers. Suddenly, it seemed, rock songs from the ’60s and ’70s popped up as background music for products from cars, soft drinks, beer to even mattresses. To some hardcore aging hippies, now in their late 40s and 50s,this was akin to selling out. Hearing Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in a Miller beer commercial rattled their ’60 sensitivities. Classics like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” became “I’m drinking up good vibrations, Sunkist Soda taste sensation.” God, is nothing sacred?
No, apparently, and some big cheques were in the mail for Brain Wilson and his song publication company. Not every group or solo artist benefits from having their hits used in commercials, especially if the song has been written by someone else. Some artists make a point of not allowing their music to be used in commercials. You won’t hear a Neil Young song in any commercial. (See his song “This Note’s For You”, a riff on “This Bud’s For You”, to understand what he thinks about commercialized music.)
More famously is the Beatles, who philosophically eschewed having their music used to sell stuff. That is, until Michael Jackson and EMI Capital bought a portion of their sound catalogue for $47.5 million, then used the song “Revolution” for a Nike commercial. The commercial ran for years while a law suit initiated by the three surviving Beatles and Yoko Ono percolated in the background. “If it’s allowed to happen,” said former Beatle George Harrison of the Nike deal in November 1987, “every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise it’s going to be a free-for-all.” In the end, Nike stopped running the commercial, but it was three years before an out-of-court settlement put an end to it. “Attorneys on both sides of the Atlantic have probably put their children through college on this.” said Yoko Ono.
The boomer outrage on rock artists selling out is on simmer. Now in their mid-60s, they’ve accepted the commerce of it all. Every time they watch a CSI episode, they can hear one of five Who songs used as the intros for the successful CSI franchise. Placated by the fact that The Who now have a new demographic of fans, who cares that Pete Townsend makes money every time a CSI episode comes on. The Who mined their ironic, satirical side on the cover of their 1967 album, “The Who Sell Out.” But back then, it was all about poking fun at the buttoned-down, exploitative world of advertising.
Other big rock names have made some serious up front money selling their songs to mega-corporations. Microsoft paid the Stones $10 million to use “Start Me Up” as part of their Windows ’95 ad campaign. Then in 2003, Ford used it in their commercials. But if selling out means making the best deal you can, then U2’s association with Apple is the gold mine of rock sell-outs – a reported $100 million-dollar gold mine. (Mind you, consumers do have standards. When Apple gave away U2’s album “Songs of Innocence” to Apple subscribers, people clamoured foul and Apple had to make software available to those who wanted to cleanse their on-line music library. U2 had apparently gone too far.)
There are some classic music from my past that is sacred, so that when I do hear it in commercials, it makes me cringe. Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” (not one of my favs but still..) was ruined forever as “Viva Viagara.” Janis Joplin’s lament, “Mercedes Benz,” was purloined and soiled by the high-end car company. As if Janis would ever drive a Mercedes Benz. The connection between Steppenwolfe’s “Born to be Wild” and Diet Pepsi eludes me. Finally, as a long time Kinks fan, it did not warm the cockles of my aging hippie heart to hear the rutting opening chords of the Kinks’ Dave Davies in, “All Day and All of the Night”, shilling for Sleep Number mattresses. The cheque for that would have been sent to his brother Ray, who wrote the song. I wonder if he’s the sharing kind of sibling.