Song Writing

Subversive Songs Used To Sell

by Carl Wiser

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Informed readers of Songfacts know the deeper meanings that go beyond the hook or chorus of a song, and we've all done double takes after hearing one used incongruently in a commercial. It's especially alarming when the song is subversive, poking at a power structure or conformist society that it is now being used to promote.

In some cases, these songs are placed against the will of the writer, but many times it's with consent. And often, these ads are wildly successful despite being misguided. Here are some songs about corruption, self-loathing, greed, heroin, S&M and nihilism that have been used to sell sneakers, jeans, fast food, cruises and cars. Lots of cars.
Janis Joplin for Mercedes
Song: "Mercedes Benz"
Janis Joplin was born and raised among the proletariat in Port Arthur, Texas. In Los Angeles, she learned that people really believed that luxury goods were the key to happiness. Her song "Mercedes Benz" is a send-up of this attitude, with the car emblematic of a shallow status symbol. It's a satire.

In 1995, Mercedes used the song to promote their new line of affordable cars: the C-Class, which could be had for as little as $30,950, well within the reach of the 35-45 demographic (baby boomers) that grew up listening to Joplin. The campaign was wildly successful, boosting sales about 20% and altering the ivory-tower image of Mercedes. The company sacrificed some luxury cachet but gained a whole new market, allowing them to unveil a line of very profitable SUVs in 1997.

When Joplin died in 1970, her estate went to her younger siblings, Laura and Michael, who often licensed her songs and image - that's why you see Joplin on so many T-shirts, mugs, blankets and other merch, and why Mercedes could get the rights. Why did it take 25 years for Mercedes to appropriate the song? Not because they were worried about misinterpreting it, but because that's when audiences familiar with Joplin could finally afford their cars.

Joplin drove a Porsche - a spunky little 1965 356C convertible that she bought for $3,500 in 1968. It was white when she bought it, but that didn't last long: she had a roadie give it a psychedelic makeover, giving her one of the most recognizable rides in San Francisco. That car landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, where it stayed until 2015 when it was sold at auction for $1.76 million.

Omitted Lyric:
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me

Iggy Pop for Royal Caribbean Cruises
Song: "Lust For Life"
Perhaps the most incongruous collision of song and product is "Lust For Life" in spots for Royal Caribbean. Is there anything less punk rock than being trapped on a boat with lounge music, fruity drinks and gluttonous buffets? And then there's the lyrics, which are about Pop's reckless, heroin-fueled adventures. In the ad, we hear the first line, "Here comes Johnny Yen again" (a character from the Burroughs novel The Ticket That Exploded), but then it skips to the chorus, leaving out the part with liquor, drugs and flesh machines.

Many imagine a group of clueless ad agency executives choosing the song blithely unaware of what it's really about. Don't buy it: if Mad Men taught us anything, it's that lots of research goes into these campaigns. They knew exactly what the song was about, and were likely aware that it would court some controversy, also known as publicity. Iggy Pop was certainly in on it. "To me, it's just great that it's out there in any form for someone to hear," he said, code for "I'm getting paid."

As they stirred up debate in a few AOL chatrooms, the ads got the attention of the very audience Royal Caribbean was looking to reach: a younger crowd looking for low-risk, guided adventure. These are the people who like the song and might even own a copy of The Idiot, but have never been slam dancing or crowd surfing. The folks whose attention is piqued when they hear it on TV and might decide a cruise is the perfect escape from their suburban malaise.

It worked. The ads started running in 2001 as part of their Get Out There! marketing campaign, showing cruise-goers swimming with stingrays and climbing glaciers. It positioned Royal Caribbean as the choice for fun and adventure, leaving the geriatric set to Carnival. Bookings went up 45% and the campaign won an industry award called an Effie. The commercials ran through 2008 when Royal Caribbean launched a new campaign: The Nation of Why Not. You don't remember those ads, do you?

Omitted Lyric:
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another striptease

The Beatles for Nike
Song: "Revolution"
Keep your sneakers, and give me back John Lennon's music!

That was the reaction from Beatles fans when Nike aired commercials in 1987 using the song "Revolution," Lennon's take on the Vietnam War. Nike, emboldened by staggering sales of their Air Jordans and ready to stir the pot in the pursuit of profits, went after the song as part of their ad campaign "Revolution in Motion." Ford used a non-Beatles version of "Help!" in 1985, but no company had used an original. To secure the rights, they paid Michael Jackson, who bought the bulk of the Beatles catalog in 1985, for the publishing (rights to use the words and music), and Capitol Records, the group's US record company, for the performance (rights to the actual Beatles recording).

Yoko Ono was apparently on board with this, saying after the ad aired that it was "making John's music accessible to a new generation," but Paul, George and Ringo certainly were not. The four of them filed a lawsuit against Nike that didn't stop the ad, but staked out their position on the matter. "The Beatles' position is that they don't sing jingles to peddle sneakers, beer, pantyhose, or anything else," their lawyer said in court.

The ads aired for about a year. In the world of advertising, the campaign was indeed revolutionary, with tight shots of regular people working out and playing sports. Nike built on this template over the years, creating groundbreaking ads with both professional and amateur athletes shot with cinematic precision.

The lawsuit was settled out of court and served its purpose, discouraging other companies to go after Beatles songs. George Harrison never pitched product, but Ringo Starr later appeared in ads for Charles Schwab, Oldsmobile and Skechers, and Paul McCartney shilled for Fidelity.

Omitted Lyric:
You say you got a real solution
We'd all love to see the plan

The Verve for Nike
Song: "Bitter Sweet Symphony"
"Bitter Sweet Symphony" is a baleful lament on the futility of life itself, but that orchestral riff is outright inspiring. Separated from the lyric, it makes a cozy bed for another Nike joint, again showing regular people pushing themselves in their athletic pursuits.

The Verve found this revolting, but they couldn't stop it. The song samples an orchestral version of the 1965 Rolling Stones song "The Last Time," which led to a rather one-sided negotiation that ended with Allen Klein, the Stones' former manager, holding the publishing rights to "Bitter Sweet Symphony," meaning he could place the song - but not the original recording - in any commercial. He licensed it to Nike for $350,000, according to Rolling Stone. Instead of letting the song get re-recorded for the ad, The Verve licensed their original for $175,000, which they gave to the Red Cross Land Mine Appeal. In Europe, a similar deal was struck with the British automaker Vauxhall to exploit the song on another continent.

An intriguing subplot: The Stones lifted "The Last Time" from a Staple Singers song called "This May Be The Last Time," but they got away with it.

Omitted Lyric:
Trying to make ends meet
You're a slave to the money then you die

Violent Femmes for Wendy's
Song: "Blister in the Sun"
This one broke up the band. Wendy's used the instrumental portion of "Blister in the Sun" for ads promoting chili and fish sandwiches. Lead singer Gordon Gano, the only writer credited on the track, signed off on the deal, which didn't go over well with bass player Brian Ritchie, who blasted him in the media and filed a lawsuit. "Neither Gordon (vegetarian) nor me (gourmet) eat garbage like Wendy's burgers," he wrote in OnMilwaukee. "I can't endorse them because I disagree with corporate food on culinary, political, health, economic and environmental grounds. However I see my life's work trivialized at the hands of my business partner over and over again, although I have raised my objections numerous times."

The band was on tour when the commercials were airing, which must have been awkward. After that tour, they split up and didn't settle their differences until 2013, when they regrouped after getting an invite to Coachella 2013.

The song isn't exactly appetizing, although according to Gano, it's not about masturbation as often presumed. It is, however, about an insecure teenager strung out on drugs.

Omitted Lyric:
Body and beats,
I stain my sheets
I don't even know why

The Pogues for Cadillac
Song: "The Sunnyside Of The Street"
For Pogues fans, the biggest shock during the 2007 Oscars wasn't Jennifer Hudson winning for her role in Dreamgirls, but "The Sunnyside Of The Street" showing up in a Cadillac commercial. You wouldn't peg Shane MacGowan as a pitchman, but someone thought his voice was the right one to go under video of an upper-class family jauntily and responsibly going about their morning routine.

Not that you could understand him. Luckily, the lyrics are posted on, where we learn that this is what he's singing in the spot:

So I saw that train
And I got on it
With a heartful of hate
And a lust for vomit
Now I'm walking on the sunnyside of the street

That's right, "lust for vomit" is in a Cadillac commercial, proof that a tin whistle and accordion can render any lyric benign. We can't tell for sure, but we think there's a Deadhead sticker on this Cadillac.

Omitted Lyric:
As my mother wept it was then I swore
To take my life as I would a whore

Creedence Clearwater Revival for Wrangler
Song: "Fortunate Son"
Up there with "Born In The U.S.A." as one of the most wildly misinterpreted rock songs, "Fortunate Son" is about misguided politicians who sent other people's children off to fight in the Vietnam War. It's anything but a patriotic anthem, but is often heard as such thanks to the line:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they're red, white and blue

That's the lyric Wrangler used in their commercial, which is draped in the American flag.

The song was written by John Fogerty, who lost the rights to his Creedence material long ago and had no say in the matter. "They're stealing something from me," he told the Los Angeles Times. "All my emotions welled up then at another nail in the coffin of the ideals of the '60s."

Asked for comment, a Wrangler rep said the song was "more an ode to the common man" that they "have been directing Wrangler toward."

Wrangler had the hutzpah to use another CCR song, "Up Around the Bend," in a 2016 commercial.

Omitted Lyric:
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no senator's son

The Velvet Underground for Dunlop
Song: "Venus In Furs"
This one only aired in the UK, where it was used to sell Dunlop tires (or as they say over there, tyres). The song would be more appropriate pushing a bondage boutique, but Dunlop was convinced it was right for their brand.

Tire advertising tends to be very technical or very cheery, showing a driver enjoying a smooth ride. Ad agencies like to be disruptive, since that's what earns them awards, which gets them more business. Someone at BBDO convinced Dunlop that it was time to change the paradigm, since tires are a "distress purchase" and should be branded as weapons in a battle against dark forces on the roadway. In the commercial, this takes the form of a magical buddha who conjures up obstacles that a driver navigates with help from his tires. The song certainly fits the mood, but how this ad got green-lighted is even more mysterious than the falling pianos, rubber-bound pinhead and painted children that haunt it.

Omitted Lyric:
Taste the whip, in love not given lightly
Taste the whip, now plead for me

The Nails for Mazda
Song: "88 Lines About 44 Women"
In 1997, Volkswagen sold a lot of Golfs with a commercial featuring the minimalist electro tune "Da Da Da." When Mazda went after the hipster demographic in a campaign for their Protege the following year, they wanted a song with comparable quirk, and found it in "88 Lines About 44 Women" by the New York indie-punk band The Nails. As the title implies, the song is about 44 different women lead singer Marc Campbell had some kind of relationship with, some in real life, others in his mind. Each woman gets two lines, for instance:

Sarah was a modern dancer
Lean pristine transparency

Janet wrote bad poetry
In a crazy kind of urgency

When Mazda came calling, Marc wanted to turn them down, as he had an aversion to big corporations that appropriate rock songs. He changed his tune when he got a tip. "The guy at the ad agency contacted me privately," Campbell told Songfacts. "He said, 'Marc, if you don't sell us the rights to this song, we're going to duplicate it. We'll change it slightly. But we're going to go ahead and do it anyway and you're going to get f--ked.'"

Marc refused to re-sing the track with the new lyrics contrived for the campaign, so it was up to a soundalike singer to deliver lines like:

Gina was a driving girl
With geographic memory

Karen dumped her boyfriend Jim
Forget that slacker misery

The Protege is positioned as "a change from all your high-maintenance relationships," making the song an appropriate choice, even with the blunted lyrics. The latte-sipping Gen X-ers portrayed in the VFX-heavy spot aren't exactly the target audience for The Nails, but at least they got paid.

Omitted Lyric:
Karen liked to tie me up
And left me hanging by a strap

The Who for Nissan
Song: "Won't Get Fooled Again"
The 1971 classic written by Pete Townshend is about a revolution. It's a treatise on the corruption of power: When the regime is overthrown, the new one takes up the same habits.

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The song has a salient and incisive message, but Nissan just used it for parts, compiling a 30-second edit with the famous synth intro, Townshend's blistering guitar riff, and Roger Daltrey's primal scream. Taken out of context, it's very effective.

In 1967 the group released an album called The Who Sell Out, where they inserted phony radio commercials between songs and appeared as pitchmen in the album art. A few decades later, they cashed in for real; the year after the Nissan ad started airing, CBS launched a new drama called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with "Who Are You?" as the theme song. The series was so successful, it spawned four spinoffs, all with themes songs by The Who. The first spinoff, CSI: Miami, used "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Remarkably, Nissan used The Smiths song "How Soon Is Now?" in the exact same campaign promoting the 2000 Maxima, once again without lyrics, as Morrissey singing lines like "I am the son and heir of nothing in particular" wasn't what they were after.

Omitted Lyric:
We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone

The Buzzcocks for AARP
Song: "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"
The Buzzcocks were never big in America, but in their native England they were appreciated for their intelligent brand of melodic punk rock. One of their best-known tunes is "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," which is based on Brave New World, a 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley. Set in the year 2540, the novel envisions a world where everyone can be happy simply by conforming to the norms and taking some Soma; it's an engineered society not unlike the one presented in most pharmaceutical advertising.

The song was released in 1979, meaning many Buzzcocks fans were newly eligible for AARP membership when the ad ran in 2007 (anyone 50 our over could now join). So while the song is clearly misused, it's possible someone at the AARP knew this and was encouraging those in the know to leave their youthful rebellion in the memory bin and embrace discounts on term life insurance.

After the ad aired, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor tracked down Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle to get his thoughts. "I realized it was for people 50 and over and I realized me and Pete [Shelley, the group's lead singer] are over 50," he said. "We broke down a few barriers, in a stylish sense. You can say, 'OK, I'm 50, but I'm still cool.' The only thing you've got to watch is to do it with style and dignity."

You'll notice a theme here: There comes a time when you stop fighting, and just go with it. The AARP gave Diggle a free membership when they read his comments.

Omitted Lyric:
Life's an illusion
Love is a dream

Devo for Target
Song: "Beautiful World"
Devo formed as a reaction to the 1970 shootings at Kent State University, where members of the National Guard fired into a crowd of Vietnam War protesters, killing four students. There was no logical reaction to this horrific and disheartening event, so Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, who were both at the school, went for the absurd, forming Devo, a new-wave/punk group that wore "energy domes" on their heads and performed in bursts of unpredictable staccato.

The band name is short for "De-Evolution," which is evolution in reverse - the direction the human race seemed headed. Their songs are catchy and fun, but embedded with themes of depravity and regression (their biggest hit, "Whip It," is a parody of self-help manifestos but made to look like a masochism song in the video). In "Beautiful World," everything is rosy in this sweet, romantic place, but only for the privileged class. "It's not for me," Casale reveals at the end.

"We wanted to get everybody into a mood where people thought Devo was saying the world was really nice and saying the world was beautiful, then it turns out to be one man's opinion," he said in a Songfacts interview. "While the world could be beautiful, it's not for me because of what I'm seeing."

That nuance was lost on most listeners, something Target knew when they embraced the irony and used it in commercials showing futuristic households filled with magical consumer goods. The humans move about in one of those blue-tinged sci-fi societies where their desires are instantly satisfied. Readers of Asimov or Huxley know that free will is a casualty of such convenience, but that's not what most people are thinking about when they plan their shopping.

Devo sees the commercial as an extension of their art, which most people will comprehend on the surface level, but some will understand as a statement on consumer culture. The group doesn't own the masters of their popular songs, so they insist on re-recording them for commercials so they can get the royalties.

Mothersbaugh, who worked on the music for Pee-wee's Playhouse and Rushmore, also supplied the soundtrack to The Lego Movie, including "Everything Is Awesome," the song that is used to placate the citizens of Bricksburg. In his Songfacts interview, he explained: "We were so far out of left field that we were always intrigued with the idea of making commercial art and fine art intersect. We were always really impressed with people that did a good job of it and felt like there was much more of a chance to change things then to just butt heads. Some of our better successes were things that were more subversive."

Omitted Lyric:
It's a beautiful world for you
It's not for me

January 25, 2017
More Song Writing

Comments: 9

  • Hakeem from Washington, D.c.The one that always makes me chuckle is the Volkswagen ad featuring the Chamillionaire song Ridin'. It seemed to me like they were advocating driving the more conservative Tiguan versus the tricked out Honda if you wanted a better chance of not being caught "Riding Dirty"!
  • Ken from New JerseyJeff from the Home Office: Neil wrote an amazing and powerful song in the spur of the moment in response to something horrific, and it wasn’t some song fragment he spent a year crafting. It was written, recorded, and in record stores in a week. That is something virtually no other member of our species can hope to accomplish and he deserves every accolade I can muster because everything about it is amazing. Still he wrote it in response to news reports. Not to minimize the horror of seeing those Kent State pictures on the cover of Time Magazine (as Neil did), but living it... having your college campus turn into a literal war zone is a very different thing.

    Neil wrote one of the greatest song lyrics you will ever hear: “what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground.” To this day, I can’t listen to that lyric without feeling a wave of emotion... anger, frustration, hopelessness.... about something that happened almost 50 years ago when I was still in diapers. That, by definition, means Neil did something magical. The difference is that Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casals weren’t still in diapers in New Jersey. They weren’t just there. They DID know her and they DID find her dead on the ground. Imagine if a random Monday of your college experience ended like that.

    I suspect that even a combat veteran would acknowledge that something like that would be worse than whatever their worst day in combat was. If nothing else, in combat, you know one possible outcome of any patrol is getting shot at, and you are armed, equipped, and trained to give you a fighting chance to come out on top if you do get shot at. Nobody heads off to Monday classes expecting to be shot at, or worse expecting to find one or more of their friends bleeding out in a parking lot on what was minutes before a beautiful spring day in Ohio... and certainly nobody... on either side apparently... was trained to deal with it. That’s heavy stuff and you are a much better man than I if you can live through that without a dent on your mental fender. Being in goofy band making goofy (and occasionally catchy) tunes seems like just about the healthiest way to process it and not lose one’s mind so props to them both.
  • Jim from Mobile, AlRob From Tampa: Now that I think about it you are right, that is a hoot!

    Jeff from the Home office: The biggest difference is that Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were actually on campus when the Kent State incident happened. Not to diminish Neil Young's song, but they actually lived it.
  • Patrick from Wahiawa, HiSpeaking of Subversive, the movie "Live Free or Die Hard" used "Fortunate Son" in just the right in-your-face way when the Bad Guys came calling.
  • Cameron from Tacoma Washington I hate the Beatles commercial
  • Rob from Tampai think GMC's use of Eminence Front should make the list too. I laugh whenever I see that commercial. 'It's a put on'
  • Jim from Mobile, AlYou missed one. "Lady Marmalade" for Estée Lauder Perfume. Why on earth would you associate your perfume and the girl walking down the street with a Prostitute on the French Quarter?

    and Yes, "Lust for life" always made me crack up. I mean are they going to server liquor and drugs, followup by a strip tease? If so, then sign me up!
  • Patrick Abe from Somewhere In HawaiiIt was more of a shock to find out that Janis Joplin owned a PORSCHE than her dissing the "Plutocrat's car" crowd. Still, the irony of her "piggies feeding at the trough" dump on Mercedes-Benz being used to sell a Gasp! "affordable Mercedes-Benz" was ROTFLMAO hysterical.;)
  • Jeff from The Home OfficeAll was well until you stated that "there was no logical reaction to this horrific and disheartening event ... " Perhaps you've never listened to Neil Young's "Ohio" with then bandmates Crosby, Stills & Nash.
see more comments

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