Under the Influence – Advertising & Music Licensing

[this article was originally published in our Newsletter in Spring of 2004]

Licensing Pop Songs into TV Commercials
Every music soundtrack tries to stimulate viewer emotions. Its role is to amplify the meaning and effectiveness of a scene. However, using a popular hit song in a TV commercial is often more of an attempt by the advertiser to hijack the meaning of the song, and the history a listener has with it, and re-frame that onto the product being advertised.

The song has nothing to do with the product. In most cases, their messages are diametrically
opposed. Case in point, the famous Cadillac ad campaign that used Led Zeppelin’s song “Rock’n Roll”.

Led Zeppelin’s “Rock’n Roll”, was originally released in 1971. It had absolutely nothing to do with driving a Cadillac or any type of corporate sponsorship. In fact, it’s a song about sexual yearning. With its pumping rhythm, and forceful vocal it uses “rock’n roll” in its original slang meaning (for sex).

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled,
It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll.
Ooh, let me get it back, let me get it back,
Let me get it back, baby, where I come from.
It’s been a long time, been a long time,
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.

Another example of simply cutting a few lines out of a song and grafting it onto an ad concept is Royal Caribbean’s “Lust for Life” campaign. It uses the Iggy Pop/David Bowie song “Lust for Life”. I can’t decide if this one is insidious or just stupid.

By using this song as music for their ad, Cadillac is able to harvest the emotions and collective memory of millions of viewers who already have huge pre-existing associations with that song. They hope viewers will transfer that identification into positive feelings for the car. The ad is aimed at 40/50-year-olds (Cadillac’s main demographic) and promises a less encumbered, more spontaneous, and fun lifestyle. In short, it sells them back their youth.

Here’s the campaign slogan –

Get Out There and satisfy your lust for life on a Royal Caribbean cruise.
(The commercial just plays a fragment of the song)

But here is the first verse of the song…

Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He’s gonna do another strip tease.
Hey man, where’d ya get that lotion?
I’ve been hurting since I’ve bought the gimmick
About something called love
Yeah, something called love.
Well, that’s like hypnotizing chickens.
Well, I’m just a modern guy
Of course, I’ve had it in the ear before.
I have a lust for life
’cause of a lust for life.

Putting pop songs in advertising is highly effective. Led Zeppelin’s “Rock’n Roll” has become the major branding tool for Cadillac’s fleet. Chevy Truck has used Bob Segar’s “Like A Rock” for over 15 years. Ad agencies are combing through 40 years of pop hits trying to get musical hooks that will act as slogans for their products. Songs attach a coolness to a product that no amount of ad copy can.This song is about, among other things, using heroin! A fragment of a song about heroin use has been clipped out of its context and used to sell……cruise vacations! It’s a total misrepresentation of the music (or perhaps Royal Caribbean has booked Johnny Yen to be activities director on its cruises).

At best this approach is simplistic rather than malicious or sinister. If the song has a lyrical refrain that matches an ad slogan then it is fair game to be clipped out of its context and laid into the ad to support the brand. It works, it sells stuff, but at what cost?

Today, it seems nothing is off limits to advertisers. A famous photo of Gandhi is co-opted by Apple computer to sell iMacs. We are made to associate Queen’s “We are the Champions” with Viagra, the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”” with Nissan Maxima, the Beatles “Come Together” with Nortel Networks.

To survive and grow, all businesses must advertise. But are there limits? Are all images, icons, and songs now nothing more than available content to be reformulated to commercial advantage?

Nowadays the colonization of Sixties rebellion by corporate America is part of the wallpaper of our consumer culture. Rolling Stones songs sell Snickers Bars, and the Who’s generational anthem about a “Teenage Wasteland” is used in a commercial for SUVs. The GAP stores in the
mall use countercultural icons such as James Dean, Jack Kerouac, and Joni Mitchell to sell clothes…      ** From the lecture Apathy, Alienation, and Activism: American Culture and the Depoliticization of Youth by Matt Lassiter, Prof. History, University of Michigan, Jan/2004

No Retreat, No Surrender at the Democratic Convention 2004
When John Kerry took the podium to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this July, he was accompanied by a recording of Bruce Springsteen singing the song “No Surrender” from the classic Born in the USA album.

The big message at the Democratic convention was “John Kerry=Strength”. Springsteen’s song was chosen because together with the powerful driving music of the E Street Band, the song’s lyrics created a strong, confident atmosphere in the convention hall.

We made a promise we swore we’d always remember
No retreat, no surrender
Like soldiers in the winter’s night with
A vow to defend, no retreat, no surrender

“Bruce Springsteen has it right. No retreat. No surrender. We are taking this fight to the country, and we are going to win back our democracy and our future,” Kerry had said before arriving at the convention.

The song “No Surrender” is not about the presidency, politics or Democrats. True, it celebrates strength, but it is the strength of the maverick, the independent, the kid who never fits in with the crowd. It is a song that gives the finger to the conventional and the mainstream. In “No Surrender” the singer longs for excitement, the exceptional – something wild.

It begins…

We busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record
than we ever learned in school

The Republican party will do the same thing but with artists that reflect their own values. A popular song will no doubt be used to elevate the emotional appeal of the important Republican themes (You can bet it won’t be the music of Bruce Springsteen though. The Boss is planning an anti-Bush tour of the U.S. during the coming election season). To make the song fit their agenda, the Democratic Party had to re-cast it as a song about confidence and power. Snip, snip, lift the chorus, ignore the context and..instant campaign slogan.

You Say You Want a Sneaker Revolution?
It all began with Nike’s infamous use of the Beatles song “Revolution” in their 1987 ad campaign for the Air Max shoe. This TV commercial set the standard and supplies the blueprint for all music for advertising that followed.

  • It loots one of the greatest musical catalogs of the 20th century (the Beatles)
  • It corrupts one of the strongest anti-establishment songs ever written (Revolution)
  • It re-frames the context of the song, forcing it to become a branding vehicle for a product.

Phil Knight, Nike CEO remembers –In 1987 Reebok was the No. 1 sneaker company worldwide. Because of the “Revolution” ad campaign, which combined an exceptional Beatles performance with images of a young Michael Jordan wearing Nike Air shoes, Nike was able to regain the number 1 position. It has been there
ever since.

Nike “got a ton of criticism” for using the Beatles’ Revolution song as the ad’s anthem, but the company found its voice with the spot. “When we started out, we couldn’t make up our minds what kind of advertising we wanted. We had different messages for different groups, but there was no overarching theme. “Revolution” captured everything we wanted to do.”

(from “Fond Memories for Past Nike Ads” USA Today, 6/16/2003)

John Lennon wrote “Revolution” in 1968 while studying transcendental meditation in India with the Maharishi Mahesh.

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
we all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out
Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright

Advertising and Music
Michael Jackson (the gloved one) who owns the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog licensed the song to Nike against the wishes of Paul McCartney. As McCartney said when the Nike ads appeared… “the song was about revolution, not bloody tennis shoes.”

All pop songs that are used in TV commercials must be licensed by the advertiser . Last month’s article addressed how the licensing process works.  If you missed the article, you can read it here.


Selling the Sizzle By Sara Minogue in Canada’s Exclaim Magazine – Great article about the use of pop songs in advertising. The article focuses on some younger bands and their feelings about licensing their music to advertisers. For some its a smart career move. This article concludes with a list of bands and the commercials that feature their music. Here’s a small sample…

The Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” for Nissan Pathfinder
Lou Reed “Walk on the Wild Side” for Honda Scooter
Nick Drake “Pink Moon” for VW; “Know” for Nike
The Rolling Stones “She’s A Rainbow” for Apple iMac;
“Start Me Up” for Microsoft
Blur “Song 2” for Labatt Blue, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan Sentra
The Who “Bargain” for Nissan Sentra;
“Baba O’Reily” for Nissan Polo;
“Won’t Get Fooled Again” for Nissan Maxima
Bob Segar’s “Like A Rock” for Chevrolet
Sting “Desert Rose” (and Sting appears) for Jaguar
The Clash “London Calling” for Jaguar
Madonna “Ray of Light” for Microsoft
AC/DC “Back in Black” for The Gap

AdTunes – a great database of music used in TV ads. “What was the music used in that film teaser trailer?” Now you can find the answer at Adtunes.com – the weblog of information on music from TV ads, movie trailers, and more.

Apathy, Alienation, and Activism: American Culture and the Depoliticization of Youth a lecture by the University of Michigan History Prof. Matt Lassiter given in January 2004. Discusses the commercialization of 1960s radicalism.

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