Josh Rabinowitz was searching for a song that would make people eat Pringles -- just the right background music for an ad that would somehow convey the emotional appeal of a stack of the Procter & Gamble Co. product.
Mr. Rabinowitz, director of music at WPP Group PLC's Grey Worldwide, decided to employ an old hit in the ads, but he had to be careful not to use a song that had appeared in other commercials, and he wanted a newly recorded version to make sure the music felt fresh. His team narrowed the selections to three: "More, More, More," a 1976 disco hit by Andrea True Connection; "Give a Little Bit," a 1977 rock ballad by Supertramp; and "Everlasting Love," a single that has been performed by a number of musicians, including Gloria Estefan and U2.
Turns out that "Give a Little Bit" had been featured earlier in an ad for Gap Inc. and "More, More, More" had become "supremely overused" over the years, Mr. Rabinowitz says. The ad team settled on "Everlasting Love" -- which Mr. Rabinowitz calls "modern psychedelic anthemic pop." The spot debuted earlier this year.
Finding hit songs for commercials is getting harder. Thousands of golden oldies are out there, but Madison Avenue is on the hunt for fresh tunes that consumers don't already associate with products. "A lot of the big, known songs and baby-boomer hits that we have grown up with have been used," says Mike Boris, a vice president and executive music producer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson. (Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" is so firmly identified with General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet trucks that it would be hard to employ it on behalf of someone else, ad executives say. Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" has made a big splash for General Motors' Cadillac in recent years, and the specialists say it will be untouchable for some time.)
Music supervisors at ad agencies typically don't set out to use a specific song, let alone a baby-boomer perennial. Creative executives usually devise a specific ad-campaign concept, and send storyboards for a particular ad to an agency executive who specializes in music. Once she gets storyboards, "I start pulling like mad, anything lyrically that can wrap around the concept," says Melissa Chester, a senior music producer at Omnicom Group Inc.'s BBDO. Casting, story and the product being advertised are among the many factors taken into consideration, says Ms. Chester, who recently matched the 1972 country rock ballad "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers Band to an ad for Cingular Wireless.
Using rock songs in commercials used to be taboo for the music industry -- particularly in the counterculture 1960s. Then Carly Simon's "Anticipation" was heard in a 1970s commercial for Heinz ketchup, and Microsoft Corp. was able to enlist The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" to promote Windows in 1995. Amid cries of "sell-out," the campaigns were attention-grabbing and therefore effective.
Now, having rock backdrops has become so widespread in recent years that it barely raises an eyebrow in the music industry anymore. Music executives are even recycling: Despite the hoopla surrounding Microsoft's use of "Start Me Up," Ford Motor Co. took it out of storage for a 2003 campaign.
While songs can always be adapted, Grey's Mr. Rabinowitz says punk-influenced alternative rock acts from the 1990s, such as Pearl Jam or Nirvana, could be harder to work into commercials. "Generally speaking, the punk attitude doesn't resonate with the concept of selling." Still, Courtney Love, widow of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, recently entered a $50 million deal with Primary Wave Music Publishing, a newly formed company, that could bring her late husband's song catalog -- which includes the hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- to commercials for the first time.
Many rap songs embrace products and commercial culture, says Mr. Rabinowitz, and work well in ads, barring explicit lyrics. For instance, a reworked version of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" -- originally an ode to the gluteus maximus -- was the centerpiece of a Target Corp. ad campaign for children's backpacks.
While advertisers select songs for any number of reasons -- the lyrics cleverly match the action of the ad, or a song's relative obscurity can get consumers asking questions about the commercial -- big, widely accepted hits still trigger a response. With a time-tested classic in an ad, "nine out of 10 people who hear it in an ad are going to turn their heads," says Keith D'Arcy, senior director at Sony Music Licensing. A recent ad for Fidelity Investments featured the song "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly.
Some songs even manage to strike a chord in generations that were not among those listening when they played on the radio. Circuit City Stores Inc. trotted out the Cars' 1978 song "Just What I Needed," for an ad campaign that started in October of 2004. Focus groups revealed that younger consumers thought the song was "hip," says Angela Ross, the retailer's director of creative services. "It's amazing to me how many people of all ages across all demographics love this song -- people who weren't born yet when the song was new," she says. Monster Worldwide Inc.'s namesake jobs Web site has used a song made famous in 1977 by Electric Light Orchestra, "Do Ya," in ads since last year. "This works across multitudes," says John Kelley, the Web site's senior vice president of marketing.
Ad campaigns rarely generate a meaningful uptick in sales for the songs used in them, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. But there are other benefits. Fees can range into the millions of dollars for iconic tunes. Songs by new or emerging artists are usually much cheaper, often because record labels hope to secure placements in ads to help boost the musicians' careers.
Last year Kellogg Co. paid Atlanta pop-rock band Collective Soul more than $200,000 to use its song "Better Now" in an ad for Special K cereal. That was only one upside for the group. The band was also promoting "Better Now" to radio stations as a single. Singer Ed Roland says the TV commercial helped drive radio airplay by making the song familiar to listeners, who in turn responded favorably to seven-second snippets played during the "callout research" pop stations use to shape their playlists.
There are some artists who refuse to let their songs be included in commercials -- and their refusal makes advertisers crave their work all the more. High on this list are rockers such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, R.E.M. and Tom Petty. Mr. Petty's "Free Fallin' " is "a great song with an advertising-friendly hook," says McCann's Mr. Boris. Mr. Young's music "would be so effective," says Grey's Mr. Rabinowitz.
Instead, Madison Avenue keeps looking to hit the right notes in ads. The rock band Cheap Trick has a classic song that would seem a natural for any commercial: "I Want You to Want Me." Unfortunately, somebody else wanted it first: Coca-Cola Co. used the song in a 2001 ad for Diet Coke. So when the band visited Publicis Groupe SA's Leo Burnett in November, as part of an agency program designed to spark collaboration with popular musicians, using tunes from the past wasn't necessarily the first thing on anyone's mind. The agency ended up featuring Cheap Trick in a McDonald's Corp. ad for the Chicago area only that told customers how to get a wake-up call from the band, which hails from nearby Rockford, Ill.
"Any way you can get exposure in today's world, you have to take it," says Collective Soul's Mr. Roland. "Of course we want to be paid. But first and foremost, we want to be heard."
Brian Steinberg and Ethan Smith, The Wall Street Journal. June 9, 2006
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