The Clash's "London Calling", with its lyrical images of nuclear winter, looming ice age and engine failure, might seem a particularly annoying musical choice for selling an elite brand of cars. But for Jaguar, the 1979 song was the perfect accompaniment to the television commercials for its new X-Type car.
Jaguar is not the only company blithely using songs whose lyrics come off as downright contrary to the images of the brands they advertise. Commercials for family friendly cruise ship vacations with Royal Caribbean are set to Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," a rousing ode to drug life from a punk firebrand who has acknowledged his own copious substance abuse. Television ads for Wrangler jeans combine images of denim-clad Americans with lyrics from "Fortunate Son," a blistering Vietnam-era protest song by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And marketers promise there will be more.
These odd couplings of anti-establishment music and conspicuous consumption could end up alienating the very consumer the ads are meant to seduce. Nike prompted an uproar in 1987 when it used the Beatles' "Revolution" in a shoe ad. In 1995, Mercedes-Benz of North America, now part of DaimlerChrysler, made a commercial using Janis Joplin's ironic "Mercedez-Benz" as straightforward advertising copy, drawing its share of ire. But the outrage has faded even as advertisers push the discrepancies between pop and products even further.
"Rarely is there a risk in using popular music in advertising," said Bill Ludwig, chief creative officer at Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich., a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. His office built a new Chevrolet campaign this fall around rock songs that mention Chevy brands, like Prince's "Little Red Corvette," which is drenched in sexual innuendo. "People accept the song for the song and don't get into the background of the artist," he added.
Executives at Jaguar, a division of Ford Motor, knew there was something funny about juxtaposing their bourgeois brand with "London Calling" and the Clash, which once released a triple album called "Sandanista."
"I was a little concerned, because the lyrics weren't appropriate for our message," said Mark Scarpato, retail communications manager at Jaguar. Young & Rubicam in Irvine, Calif., part of the WPP Group, created the spot.
Skilled editing, however, transformed it from apocalyptic to energetic, helping Jaguar project a hip image. "It's a fairly dark song when you listen to it, but we used it in a positive way," Mr. Scarpato said.
The campaign for Jaguar's X-Type was not a smash with everyone.
"On its face, it's preposterous that anyone would associate selling Jaguars with the Clash singing `London Calling,' " said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at New York University. "Back in the 70's it would have seemed like inspired satire," he added. "But now, really, all bets are off."
But it probably works, Mr. Miller said, adding, "Their hope is that as people drive their Jaguars, they'll feel like outlaws."
Royal Caribbean International in Miami could do without Iggy Pop's outlaw image; its marketing executives just liked the pounding beat of "Lust for Life."
"Iggy wasn't someone we were going to put out front," said Jay Williams, managing partner and group creative director at Arnold Worldwide in Boston, part of Havas, which created the campaign.
And the song, which gained new fans after it appeared on the soundtrack to "Trainspotting," a 1996 movie about heroin addicts, was a dubious lure for the suntan-and-shuffleboard set, too. It begins:
Here comes Johnny in again
With liquor and drugs
And a fast machine
He's gonna do another strip tease
The commercials handily trim it to three optimistic words from the refrain:
Lust for life
"We were using a portion of the song that musically and lyrically fit with what we were doing," Mr. Williams said, pointing out that the ad was intended to broaden the appeal of cruises to a younger generation. "The energy, enthusiasm and raw feel was right."
Moreover, by Mr. Williams' reading, the song actually eschews liquor and drugs. "The guy in question is actually giving up his nasty habits in a lust for life."
That seems to be a minority view; a newspaper article in The Guardian once referred to "Lust for Life" as one of the "soundtracks of choice to discerning smack users."
"If this cruise can deliver the Iggy Pop lifestyle experience, then I'd love it," said Conor McNichols, editor of New Musical Express magazine. "But if I tried to do it, I reckon I'd be chucked off the boat."
The success of advertisers with these ads suggests that making radical songs saccharine is actually easy. "Meaning is extremely malleable," said Gary Burns, professor of communication at Northern Illinois University and editor of Popular Music and Society, an academic journal. "Songs in general lose meaning over time." Giving songs new meanings works for the advertisements, he said.
Whether it works for the music or its fans is less clear.
When John Fogerty wrote and performed "Fortunate Son" with Creedence Clearwater Revival, he meant to savage what he saw as the American establishment's hypocrisy. Three decades later, the song turned up in a feel-good campaign for Wrangler jeans.
"I was protesting the fact that it seemed like the privileged children of the wealthy didn't have to serve in the Army," said Mr. Fogerty, who does not own the rights to his music.
"I don't get what the song has to do with pants," he added.
But the VF Corporation, which owns the Wrangler brand, and Toth Brand Imaging, its agency in Concord, Mass., thought the audience got it.
"I've gotten a few e-mails from people who mistakenly felt like it was an anti-American and antiwar song," said Craig Errington, director for advertising and special events for Wrangler. "It was written and produced more as an antiprivilege anthem, as an ode to the common man."
"We sell millions and millions of jeans to those kinds of people and always have," he said.
For marketers who would raid the jukebox, the greatest worry is making an ineffective ad.
"This is a real tightrope," said Eric Hirshberg, creative director at the Los Angeles office of Deutsch, part of Interpublic. Deutsch created the popular Mitsubishi campaign that shows an everyday pastime, singing in the car, to wed pop music to its product. "Music can be used as a shortcut to make a connection with people, but it will be fleeting unless there's a real reason to use it."
And some music aficionados do not see any harm in the practice.
"If it's a good riff, people are going to listen to it," even in a commercial, said Jason Fine, senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. "It doesn't particularly bother me or steal the song's meaning from me. I know a lot of people do feel that way, but that's become an outdated way of thinking."
Nat Ives, The New York Times. November 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.