Advertising music is on tv with a vengeance these days. Song hits from yesteryear are popping up again in tv ads, designed to stir our nostalgia and to have us burn up some of our bourgeoisie bucks on their products. I resent it.
The world is full of musicians who want to make a living from their music and music is such a vital part of advertising. It would make sense, therefore, for advertisers to make use of this wealth of talent and hire these artists to write and perform original music for their advertising campaigns. If advertisers could adopt a more visionary approach and commission original advertising music, this recruitment might pave the way for more talented musicians to have a place to go in the marketplace. But first they must stop recycling the hits of the past to sell today’s products, because if they don’t do that soon, they’re not likely to have much to draw from in the future.
Like everyone else, I was introduced to tv advertising music early on in my life and when I was a kid I went for it. I liked watching the trained bunnies who dropped coins into a piggy bank but more especially, I liked the accompanying advertising jingle which was its own simple child-like song, a nursery rhyme which encouraged us to develop good thrifty habits. Musicians working for an ad agency wrote that original jingle for Coast Federal Savings, which just goes to show that an original song is good value, even for an august financial institution.
A simple jingle composed for an ad campaign can do its job and promote the virtues of the product. The early Mr. Clean commercial was an appealing cartoon character with an accompanying “jingle” which launched a product that is still on the shelves today. People respond to advertising in a variety of ways. The original “Mr. Clean” jingle inspired the young Frank Zappa to write and record a parody in 1963, also called “Mr. Clean” (immortalized on Baby Ray & The Ferns : Frank Zappa – Cucamonga). So even if ad music composed for a commercial isn’t great, a person listening to it might be sufficiently inspired to try writing some music that is great, or at least doing something equally creative. Although designed to merely promote a product, ad music sometimes has an influence far beyond the ad’s original intention.
Pop music is attractive to advertisers by virtue of its popularity with the audience. In 1965 or so, a struggling and then nearly unknown group of L.A. folk musicians called the “Stone Poneys” made an appearance in a Coca-Cola commercial. They sang an original song, brought to life by the advertising company handling the Coca Cola ad campaign. As a result, this connection with a soft drink that had almost become synonymous with the national psyche, the “Stone Poneys” were introduced to and soon recognized by, huge national audiences. This instant familiarity quickly afforded one Linda Ronstadt an opportunity to step forward from the group and take a major turn at the microphone, proving that the cream in the murkiest of mediocre musical genres, will always rise to the top. Also, that somebody’s uncle must have been an executive for a big soft drink company.
In 1967, I watched a woman identified only as “Mrs. Lee Michaels” extolling the virtues of Campbell’s tomato soup. Her real-life husband, Lee Michaels, was a renowned rock musician back then and although he hadn’t even released a record, he was becoming well known from his performances at various rock palaces and for serving up original material like “Grocery Soldier.” I doubt he would have done that commercial in those days, even if the advertisers had lost their wits and asked him!
His appearance alone was a symbol of rebellion and wildness, quite the reverse image from the picture of domesticity that Campbell’s hoped to convey. In those days, major record companies were shunning Michaels’s music as “too wild” or “too psychedelic” to be represented by their labels.
Campbell’s didn’t use his music either — just his name and popularity by association. But the way Campbell’s made use of him was like a weird “in” joke that twisted reality and messed with my head, because the advertisers seemed to be working to tame the image of all that rock palace wildness. Now I wasn’t anywhere near as rebellious a counterculture type as some rock musicians, but I decided not to buy Campbell’s and opted instead, to buy the Co-op brand of tomato soup. I took a stand and began reacting against advertising world’s tendency to “co-opt”.
Hearing a Carly Simon song used in a brand name catsup commercial back in the early 70’s, made me want to buy only generic products. The ad song seemed an uncanny duplication of Carly’s then recent hit, “Anticipation.” Carly, by virtue of her powerful family connections, I pretended had blocked the use of her original version in the commercial. I imagined that sneakily as corporations sometimes sneak, the catsup ad was made as a sound-a-like version of the original song, complete with a vocalist selected because her natural singing voice so closely resembled Carly’s, a fact which until that point had been an impediment to her own singing career. And just who was I trying to kid?
The natural flow of the lyric was chopped just like the onion for the hamburger, which waited fleshily on its bed of lettuce for that thick delicious drop to begin its slow-motion fall. At the time, I mentally blocked the name of the catsup company using the song to lure me to their product and I moved in the opposite direction. As I honestly didn’t remember the name of the catsup company using the song, when I found myself shopping for catsup at the supermarket one day, I opted to buy a generic product.
I still don’t know the name of the particular brand of catsup which sponsored the ad, nor do I care to. The ad certainly got my attention, but if ever I happen to hear “Anticipation,” it just makes me want to use mustard or mayonnaise instead! I feel disappointed about that damn song and a whole mess of negativity rises up inside me about all brand names, a kind of righteousness indignation at the way the ad agencies must have simply strong-armed Carly’s music away from her.
In the old days, I could be free and just ask myself, “To buy, or not to buy?” I can still be a good citizen and make that decision even though it is becoming more complicated now. But with ads culling the soul of beloved music-makers from days gone by, things other than nostalgia are stirring within me. It still annoys me to remember hearing Muddy Waters’ music in a recent jeans commercial. Muddy died in 1983. Who the hell asked Muddy if he wanted that particular gig? “Blues” doesn’t just mean a simple association with the color of denim and the ad people are smart enough to know that.
I’ve always liked Desmond Dekker a lot. He was the first Jamaican artist to hit the international top ten in the late sixties with his song, the “Israelites.” A decade later, once the reggae craze was challenged by 80’s dance music, his career took a dip. He was close to bottoming out, when the “Israelites” was picked up in 1990 and used in a Maxell tape commercial. The syllables of the chorus, “Ooh-oh, the Israelites”, were changed to. . “Ooh-oh, my ears are all right”. Despite this slightly clever but completely vacuous rewrite, the genuine charm of the original song was so appealing that Des’ career was revitalized. Now, I didn’t mind at all that Des’ popularity rebounded, but a few years later the song was used again for a commercial for Vitale water and in the end, over-using a tea bag will eventually result in weak tea.
Of course none of this is news. Pre-recorded pop tunes seem to have become the norm for advertising music and where they may have provided the soundtrack for a generation of baby-boomers back in the sixties, they are now the soundtrack for a younger generation who only relate to them from tv commercials. Everyone’s getting tired of this form of music in advertising, except of course the ad people themselves. Even the editor of the local free paper in my little hick cow-town is grousing, because he noticed that “Baba O’Riley” has been adopted to sell a certain brand of sports utility vehicle. He joked about heckling the Who at their upcoming concert by shouting, “Play that Nissan Pathfinder song!”
In the real world of people who might talk about a product, even mentioning the behemoth size of SUV’s is the height of banality these days. To open a conversation with, “I have to use a ladder to climb in”, is to watch people’s eyes glaze over.
We’re accustomed to having the meaning of the original song twisted out of existence, so it doesn’t seem to matter now that the song as first set down appeared to be more about spiritual yearnings. The first line of the song’s lyrics “Out here in the fields” just set the scene for the ad writers. In the commercial, the SUV’s are engaged in a motorized game of polo, a sight that stretches my credulity now, every bit as much as looking at sepia-tinged photos of the Colonial English playing elephant polo in India. This is a preposterous chukker, a ridiculous image which nonetheless takes the spirit of “imperial” competitiveness to the playing field, even as a vigorous past time.
“Wasteland”, whether teenaged or cultural, is an obviously self-effacing self reference, but “wasted” becomes changed in this usage, to a more modern idiom denoting triumph on the field of play –- the destruction of the opponent. Who’s getting wasted? I can imagine the ad writer realizing that “Baba” is some kind of Hindi term, but of course that leads to thinking about elephant polo!
Pete Townshend of The Who has been reported as having acquired enough money by the late 70’s to publicly declare he would donate all his future earnings to charity. Sorry, Mr Townshend, but this doesn’t make me feel like hearing “Baba O’Riley” in a commercial any better. I just hope that next time you’re asked, you’ll tell the advertisers that you’d like to write a whole new song for them and then give the money to charity. What I can see as a lazy approach to advertising music is not only getting tiresome, it makes people cynical.
The editor in my frontier town noticed something I didn’t, because unlike him, I’m not familiar with every single song that was popular in the late 50’s and 60’s. He recognized in a commercial, a version of what was once a very earnest anti-establishment 60’s song by the Rascals. The line: “People everywhere just want to be free,” has been picked up by Verizon Wireless, the new name for Airtouch — the old name for Pacific Telesis Group. The editor is a trained journalist and looked up Verizon’s website, where they outline their determination to become the nation’s largest cell phone company: “(Our) nationwide footprint will cover 90% of the U.S. population and 96 out of the top 100 U.S. wireless markets.”
The frontier editor pointed out that in the commercial, people are flashing the peace sign whilst the Rascal’s lyrics roll. He wryly implied, that when people flashed the peace sign in the old days and talked about being free, they might have had something other than cell phones in mind. Well, what does he expect? They did have something else in mind and it wasn’t just because cell phones hadn’t been invented yet!
Yesterday’s counter-culture is currently being presented by commercial culture as “the stuff dreams were made of”, but the manner in which the music of yesteryear is presented in ads trivializes more than the music. Twisting reality that way leaves nothing substantial to talk about.
How trivial does it sound to start off an explanation with, “Life isn’t really like it is in the commercials” until you now have to explain that, “Life wasn’t really like it is in the commercials.” Except to say, perhaps, that if advertisers draw so often from the older material that implies they believe they are living and working in less talented times.
I’m a run of the mill person and these ad people are confusing me. They’re supposed to make it easier for me to select their product, but just look at what they’ve done and how they’ve gone and complicated things. I’ll think about anything and everything, except the product they’re trying to get me to buy.
The music they’re using originally expressed an attitude, hope, dream, or aspiration that I might have been able to accept as my own, but these faceless ad designers are polluting the purity of the connection I once made with the musician. Since the ads are not talking to me about who I was, or even who I might have been, this means they can’t really understand who I am now, or might want to be in the future.
No. They need to dump this retrograde trend and use original music in their ads. And let’s make it original music about the product –- for the aspiring songwriter, it’s damn good training and after all, it’s the product they’re supposed to be trying to sell.
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