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"
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.
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"
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?
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another striptease
The Beatles for Nike
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.
You say you got a real solution
We'd all love to see the plan
The Verve for Nike
Song: "Bitter Sweet Symphony"
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.
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.
Body and beats,
I stain my sheets
I don't even know why
The Pogues for Cadillac
Song: "The Sunnyside Of The Street"
Not that you could understand him. Luckily, the lyrics are posted on pogues.com, 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.
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.
It ain't me, it ain't me
I ain't no senator's son
The Velvet Underground for Dunlop
Song: "Venus In Furs"
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.
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"
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.
Karen liked to tie me up
And left me hanging by a strap
The Who for Nissan
Song: "Won't Get Fooled Again"
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.
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 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.
Life's an illusion
Love is a dream
Devo for Target
Song: "Beautiful World"
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."
It's a beautiful world for you
It's not for me
January 25, 2017
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