"Something that's struck me as a significant shift, and I don't know when it started, is when the corporate entity became a benefactor as opposed to a thing musicians shunned. When I hear Grizzly Bear in a Volkswagen commercial, it kind of bums me out. I like Grizzly Bear a lot; I don't want to think of a fucking car when I hear their song. But somewhere along the line it became okay to get in bed with a sponsor. More specifically it became okay for rock bands to talk about."
On the flip side, many bands see commercializing their songs as a necessary evil to get their music to the public, especially since large corporations started taking control of radio stations in the early '90s. Volkswagen, in particular, is a powerful ally. Aside from manufacturing vehicles, the company has launched music careers and brought old songs back to the charts thanks to its commercials.
"Theme From Harry's Game" by Clannad
Song: 1982 Commercial: 1992
Clannad is an Irish folk band best known in the States for their former bandmate Enya and their ethereal 1982 song "Theme From Harry's Game." Perhaps the most significant track in the group's discography, the Gaelic-language song exemplified the band's signature sound with layers of synth and vocal harmonies. It was written and recorded for the UK miniseries Harry's Game, which is about the turbulent Troubles in Northern Ireland. The single was a Top 10 hit in the UK, but didn't make its way across the pond until Volkswagen chose it to promote three new vehicles in 1992: the Passat, the Corrado, and the Eurovan.
If the company actually knew what the song was about, it might not have picked "Harry's Game" as the backdrop for a commercial about getting the most out of life. Jason Flom, the RCA exec who negotiated the deal with Volkswagen, recalled in a Forbes interview: "It was lucky the lyrics were in Gaelic because it was actually a funeral dirge, and I don't think if I was Volkswagen, I would be playing a funeral dirge in my ad for cars. But, we never told them."
It was a good thing Clannad and company kept mum, because the exposure from the ad brought the band international acclaim and the star song went Gold. The success also carved out a new path for the Irish musicians in TV and film soundtracks, which led to the inevitable accusations of selling out. But in terms of the VW ad, that was the only way for them to get noticed. Clannad singer Moya Brennan told The Chicago Tribune: "When you've got a song like 'Harry's Game' and you're not played on the radio, it's great to get it out there... You could look at it as people are getting to hear our music."
"Young At Heart" by The Bluebells
Song: 1984 Commercial: 1993
The Scottish new wave band The Bluebells had a hit with Bananarama's "Young At Heart" in 1984, when it peaked at #8 in the UK. But its greatest success came years after the band split up when it was featured in a 1993 Volkswagen ad.
In the commercial, a young woman emerges from a courthouse to a jubilant crowd of well-wishers as the guitar-pop song "Young At Heart" plays. The sign on the back of her VW Golf clues us in to the occasion: Just Divorced.
Not only did the ad send the re-released single to #1 in the UK for four weeks, but it also temporarily reunited The Bluebells, who appeared on Top of the Pops to perform the tune.
"Da Da Da" by Trio
Song: 1982 Commercial: 1997
The German band Trio also didn't mind reviving an old song for the sake of new success. The new wave group first released the repetitive synth track "Da Da Da" in 1982 and it swept charts throughout Europe. Fifteen years later, it took hold in America when it was featured in an ad for the Volkswagen Golf.
The year was 1997. Seinfeld, dubbed "the show about nothing," was going strong in its eighth season. Meanwhile, mid-'90s flicks like Reality Bites and Clerks helped solidify Gen-Xers as "slackers" for their apathetic lifestyle. Volkswagen exploited both concepts in the "Sunday Afternoon" commercial, which the company described as "the ad about nothing." The TV spot follows two young guys on an aimless road trip to the tune of "Da Da Da." They almost accomplish something when they pick up an abandoned chair, but ultimately it's too stinky to ride along in the hatchback.
The ad was a huge success for both German creators. Volkswagen saw a near-10% increase in sales of the model from the previous year, and Trio - who broke up in 1986 - were thrust back into the spotlight thanks to their seminal song. Curious viewers flooded radio stations and record stores in search of the techno tune and it was re-released as a single to meet the demand.
"Pink Moon" by Nick Drake
Song: 1974 Commercial: 1999
The most iconic ad in Volkswagen's history, the 1999 "Milky Way" commercial introduced American viewers to the late singer Nick Drake and his melancholy tune "Pink Moon."
In the one-minute advert, four friends in a Cabriolet convertible take a moonlit drive down a country road on their way to a party. Instead of stopping at their destination, they continue their peaceful journey under a blanket of stars, accompanied by Drake's acoustic musings about the pink moon.
The British singer-songwriter, who died of an overdose of antidepressants at age 26 in 1974, never found a mainstream audience in his short career but earned posthumous esteem from artists like Robert Smith (The Cure), Kate Bush, and Peter Buck (R.E.M.). Still, only the most serious music fans knew of Drake's introspective folk-pop catalog until the VW ad aired. That's just what the ad men behind the commercial were counting on. They wanted to target the hipster crowd who took pride in their obscure music collection and - hopefully - their taste in German-crafted vehicles. The gamble mostly paid off.
"The spot was hugely popular," said Shane Hutton, one of the masterminds behind the ad. "But socially? This was before social media, thank god, because we killed a sacred cow. I mean, we used Nick Drake's music in a commercial."
While Drake's small-but-loyal fanbase was sending hate mail to the Boston ad agency that created the commercial, first-time listeners were buying up copies of Drake's Pink Moon album thanks to the ad. Drake biographer Amanda Petrusich noted in her book 33 1/3: "Sales of Drake's album increased nearly 500 percent during the first 10 weeks of 2000, when Drake shifted more than 4700 copies of Pink Moon, compared to 815 in the same period in 1999. With album sales further bolstered by the addition of tiny 'AS FEATURED IN THE VW AD' stickers to the front of CDs, annual sales (as reported by The New York Times in 2001) jumped from about 6,000 copies a year to over 74,000."
"Mr. Roboto" by Styx
Song: 1983 Commercial: 1999
Another memorable VW commercial from 1999 resurrected the '80s throwback "Mr. Roboto" by Styx. The problem was, most of the band members wanted the song to stay dead.
Written by Styx vocalist/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, "Mr. Roboto" was the hit single from the band's 1983 concept album, Kilroy Was Here. DeYoung was the architect of the futuristic rock opera, which was as divisive as it was popular. Soon after their elaborate promotional tour, the band split over creative differences. When they reunited seven years later, it was without "Mr. Roboto," which to them represented an acrimonious and downright embarrassing moment in their career.
By the time the Volkswagen ad came along, they'd successfully kept the song out of their live repertoire for nearly a decade. But the ad, featuring future Arrested Development star Tony Hale rocking out to the tune in his soundproof Golf, made the fan requests more fervent. Still, the band was steadfast in their decision for nearly a decade. They finally caved in 2018 when they reintroduced "Mr. Roboto" in their encore at a show in Irvine, California.
Styx guitarist James "J.Y." Young explained their change of heart. "There were young people whose first song they bought was 'Mr. Roboto,' and that sent them back to the previous albums," he told Billboard. "While it killed the momentum of the first huge wave of Styx, it actually spawned the next generation of Styx fans."
"Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put A Spell On You)" by Aqualung
Song: 2002 Commercial: 2002
When Volkswagen used "Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)" to promote its new Beetle in 2002, no one knew who Aqualung was. Hales, the British piano player who records under the moniker, was in financial trouble after his former band, the 45s, was dropped by their record label. He put feelers out for any kind of musical gig that would earn him some fast cash and hit on the VW ad. The company had been looking for the right music for two years and Hales just happened to have a perfect song waiting in the wings.
The only new music he had was a slice of minimal atmosphere pop he recorded in his apartment's hallway on an out-of-tune piano. Much to his surprise, it was not only used in the UK commercial, but it also generated a mystery in England over the identity of the artist. Hales' own friends didn't even know. "I knew I was on to something when a friend called me one morning and asked me if I knew who had done the song for the Beetle commercial," he told Harp magazine.
The songwriter didn't divulge his secret, at least not until record labels started making offers to finance his album. He released "Strange and Beautiful" as his debut single, which peaked at #7 in the UK.
This practice became known as "getting Beastied," and it struck fear into VW owners. It got so bad, the company got involved, offering free replacements to owners whose emblems were now hanging around the necks of Beastie fans from Seattle to Knoxville.
"Molly's Chambers" by Kings of Leon
Song: 2003 Commercial: 2005
By the time Volkswagen used Kings of Leon's "Molly's Chambers" in their commercial for the 2005 Jetta, the song was already two years old, but hardly anyone in America had heard it. In fact, most had never even heard of the band. The Tennessee rockers, who debuted in 2003 with Youth and Young Manhood, were gaining traction in the UK with their Southern-style garage rock but failing to make an impression in their home country. Then came Volkswagen.
In the "Independence Day" commercial, we meet young apartment dwellers who love to dance to "Molly's Chambers" at an ear-splitting volume, much to the annoyance of their crotchety neighbor. By the end of the ad, we follow them in their Jetta to their new home, where they can blast the song to their hearts' content. Lots of viewers wanted to do the same and clamored to identify the tune.
Meanwhile, the promotional department at RCA had been struggling to figure out a way to break Kings of Leon in the US. They tried to convince the band to re-issue "Molly's Chambers" as a single, but the group wasn't interested in revisiting the past. Clive Davis, the label's president, begrudgingly let them have their way. He recalled in his 2013 autobiography: "It's one thing to speak in general terms about a band having complete creative control. It's quite another to know that you have a major opportunity to make a real commercial breakthrough, and to have the band flat-out refuse to go along. If you believe in the band, you have no choice but to rely on your faith that another, hopefully better opportunity will present itself."
That opportunity came in 2008 with the single "Sex On Fire," which hit #1 on the Rock chart and won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
"Singin' In The Rain" by Gene Kelly and Mint Royale
Song: 1952 Commercial: 2005
In 2005, Volkswagen launched its new GTI Golf with the tagline "The original, updated." Following that premise, the company wanted to retool a classic piece of music history for the modern age. The result was Gene Kelly's famous dance sequence in Singin' In The Rain transformed into a break-dance number with a big-beat remix of the title song by Manchester's Mint Royale.
When VW commissioned Mint Royale for the project, the former duo was a one-man outfit run by Neil Claxton, who didn't even consider releasing the tune as a single until the ad took off. By the time he got the proper clearances to release it, however, the commercial was no longer airing and the single petered out at #20 in the UK. (In 2008, it leapt to #1 thanks to George Sampson's re-creation of the dance routine on Britain's Got Talent.)
When asked by Music Radar if he got any hate for commercializing his music, Claxton replied: "In this modern age, the reality is that music is a commodity. That particular genie has been let out of the box and I don't think we're going to be able to get it back inside, so we might as well deal with it."
"Sky Blue Sky" by Wilco
Song: 2007 Commercial: 2007
Up to this point, Volkswagen has been all about reviving old tunes for their ads, but the company switched tactics in 2007 in a partnership with Wilco. To promote the band's Sky Blue Sky album, frontman Jeff Tweedy controversially licensed several of the new tunes for a series of VW commercials.
In "Sweet Air," a couple ditches a wedding reception in a sporty Eos coupe convertible to the tune of "Sky Blue Sky"; in "Rabbit," two young guys test drive a GTI Rabbit and use its MP3 jack to blast "The Thanks I Get," drowning out the car salesman's spiel. In "Valet," a Jetta driver refuses to hand over his car to reckless valets as "You Are My Face" plays. "Thief," featuring the track "Either Way," finds a car thief taking a Beetle on a joyride before returning it to its rightful owner, and in "Crying Baby," the song "Walken" helps a Jetta-driving dad soothe his fussy infant.
The campaign sparked a backlash among fans and critics alike, who accused the band of being the worst kind of sell-outs. Sure, they'd licensed their songs for use in media before, but this was different. Those tunes were pre-existing and had primary associations that had nothing to do with selling cars. For someone who heard "Sky Blue Sky" for the first time in the ad, it'd be hard to separate the song from the car manufacturer. But Wilco insisted they had to use TV to get their music out there when radio refused to play their songs. Besides, they explained on their website, "We feel okay about VWs. Several of us even drive them."
"Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear
Song: 2009 Commercial: 2010
Grizzly Bear clearly didn't have Trent Reznor on their side when their song "Two Weeks" was used in Volkswagen's 2010 Super Bowl ad, but they did have the support of another music veteran: Stevie Wonder.
In the "Punch Dub" commercial, Volkswagen shows off its variety of Beetles with a play on the classic "punch buggy" game. For the uninitiated, the game involves punching another player's arm whenever you spot a VW Beetle and sometimes shouting out the color of the car. The ad is a montage of unsuspecting folks being slugged by their companions when the vehicle is near. Even Stevie Wonder gets in on the action when the blind singer somehow spots a Beetle drive by. He punches comedian Tracy Morgan and shouts, "Red one!"
Shortly after its appearance in the popular ad, "Two Weeks" started showing up in several rap songs, including Childish Gambino's "Bitch Look At Me Now (Two Weeks)."
"Take On Me" by A-ha
Song: 1984 Commercial: 2013
In 2013, Volkswagen wanted to promote its new maintenance program and used A-ha's 1984 chart-topper "Take On Me" to invite drivers to take them on.
The "Feeling Carefree" commercial not only uses the Norwegian group's synthpop song, but also pays tribute to its iconic video by using the same rotoscoping technique to bring pencil-sketch animation to life. Like A-ha's clip, the comic-bookish ad starts with a motorcycle race, but instead of lead singer Morten Harket surpassing the bikers, we watch a guy zipping by in a Passat. The end cuts to a live-action scene during an office meeting, where a businessman has been sketching out the story and singing the tune out loud - much to the amusement of his co-workers when he attempts to hit Harket's high note.
The song was already back in the public eye by the time the commercial aired. Earlier in 2013, it was sampled in the Pitbull/Christina Aguilera collaboration "Feel This Moment."
"Livin' Thing" by ELO
Song: 1976 Commercial: 2017
In 2017, ELO frontman Jeff Lynne re-recorded the band's 1976 hit "Livin' Thing" for a Volkswagen Tiguan advert. In the commercial, titled "The New King," a giant King Kong balloon breaks free from a car dealership to follow a pretty blonde driving the vehicle through the city.
Bolstered by its appearance in the ad, the song returned to a Billboard chart for the first time in 40 years with a #22 spot on the Rock Digital Songs Sales chart.
It wasn't the first time an ELO tune showed up in a VW ad. In 2002, "Mr. Blue Sky" appeared in the "Bubble" promo for the new Beetle convertible. The upbeat pop number ironically soundtracks the monotonous daily routine of an office drone, who glimpses freedom when he sees the vehicle through his window.
While we probably won't hear a NIN song on a Volkswagen commercial any time soon, it's undeniable that the automaker has been an influential force in many music careers. For more songs that appear in Volkswagen ads, see "Little Fluffy Clouds" by The Orb, "Get Up Offa That Thing" by James Brown, "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone, and "I'm A Man" by The Spencer Davis Group.
January 23, 2020
Here's our list of songs used in commercials
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