Remember the good old days, when advertisers tried to sell things by brainwashing an unsuspecting public with unforgettable little annoyances called jingles? Everyone who ever watched TV can remember a few. "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese . . ." Or, "I'm a Pepper, he's a Pepper, wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?" Or that most bizarre of sing-alongs, "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener . . . "
Jingles were like the worst teenybopper hit singles: They'd get stuck on repeat in the head of the captive couch potato, and nothing but the next grating ditty peddling some sort of NutraSweet-ened beverage would help ease the pain.
How times have changed. These days, TV ads are more likely to feature music from an established artist rather than employing some original irritation of a song. The past year alone has seen a number of superstar bands giving TV viewers something to hum along to: the Rolling Stones selling both Microsoft and Macintosh; Madonna pitching cell phones; bare-footed classic rockers Aerosmith hawking jeans.
Taking the art of subliminal messages to a new high, ad agencies are now using "bed music" (the biz term for tunes that underscore voice-overs) by artists who are relatively commercially obscure. Regardless of whether these advertisers are trying to tap into the youth demographic or are just interested in having good music in their spots, it's odd to imagine stockbrokers and schoolteachers humming along to artists like Land of the Loops. Americans have become too savvy to fall for the average pitch ditty. But can we really believe that society no longer wishes it were an Oscar Mayer wiener?
Take the popular and award-winning VW Beetle campaign. Coupling vivid images of the cartoonish cars with music by artists like Stereolab, Spiritualized, and the Orb, the Beetle TV spots caught the eyes and ears of consumers, and undoubtedly contributed to the frenzy for upwardly mobile buyers to be the first on their block to own one of these new status symbols. Could Stereolab—despite its major-label ties, a staple of every indie rocker's music library—really sell more cars to the mainstream than the Spice Girls? How does an artist who would merit barely a glimmer of recognition in the eyes of the programming gods at MTV end up in millions of households during prime time?
"We're in a very competitive category," explains Liz Vanzura, director of marketing for Volkswagen of America, when asked about the music in the company's ads. "We tend to choose advertising that is very relatable—that connects with our target very well—and music has been a huge part of it."
As for why VW opted for music by lesser-known artists rather than tracks by household names, Vanzura says, "We have a brand that we think is best communicated by non-commercial-type bands. We don't want to be instantly recognized by the song, and get images in the consumer's head of the band. You know, the Rolling Stones or Madonna—it's just so predictable. We tend to pick things that fit the spot and the mood and feel a lot less commercial, and a lot more human."
Needless to say, a lesser-known artist whose music gets featured in a Super Bowl time slot sees an enormous impact on his or her record sales. Music that's used to sell a product also sells itself. In some cases, contributing music to an ad campaign can even revive a dead career. For Trio, a one-hit wonder from the early '80s, a simple ad changed everything. After airing a spot for the Golf that contained Trio's new-wave ditty "Da Da Da," Volkswagen was inundated with phone calls and e-mail from consumers who wanted to know more about the band, and how to get a copy of the song. Seizing upon the demand, Polygram re-released the once out-of-print album, and it quickly broke into Billboard's Top 200.
Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has reaped the rewards of performing in an ad campaign as well, with an astounding sales increase of 1,500 percent from when his Christmastime Gap ad first aired. Using the ad as a tool, Wainwright's publicist Jim Merlis was able to get the attention of hard-to-impress bookers at Late Night with David Letterman and The Today Show. "At the same time the Gap ad ran, Rufus was named by Rolling Stone as Best New Artist for 1998," Merlis recalls. "It was the synergy of these two things that sealed the deals with these TV bookers. Because of the television bookings we saw a spike in sales, but those bookings came from the commercial."
An even more jarring scenario involves another VW spot. The ad shows a couple driving through the French Quarter in a Jetta while all movement—windshield wipers, turn signals, people on the sidewalk—becomes synchronized to the background music. The ad has caused an avalanche of queries about the song, but since VW commissioned it from jingle composer Pete DuCharme, it isn't available in any purchasable form. So VW has entered the record business: Without divulging details of the company's plans, Vanzura said that VW will be distributing the song as part of a sales promotion.
One of the labels that's had noted success in breaking new artists via TV commercials is Astralwerks, which has licensed a number of its artists' music to various advertisers. Label publicist Dan Cohen wouldn't reveal the financial details of these deals, but as far as record sales and media attention go, being bed music has been nothing but beneficial for Astralwerks acts like Air, Fluke, and Fatboy Slim. After being used in a L'Or顬 campaign, the French electronic-pop outfit Air got increased attention from the powers-that-be in the fashion-magazine world. When Fluke landed one of the coveted Beetle spots, Astralwerks reacted by putting Beetle-shaped stickers on Fluke CDs in record stores.
Then there's Fatboy Slim, whose singles are not only ubiquitous on commercial alternative radio, but also as soundtracks for countless TV ads, including spots for Nike, Volkswagen, and numerous teen-movie trailers. It's all worked out perfectly, according to Cohen: "Nike aired their campaign that featured [Fatboy Slim's] 'Praise You' in December, which was also when we had scheduled to promote that song to radio. The ad made it a lot easier for us, because our promotions guys could call the station and point out that their listeners had already heard the song and would recognize it. We can literally pinpoint when the ad went up, because sales and radio responded. To have a song in a commercial is great."
It's hard to disagree. As long as TV remains America's favorite pastime, and commercial-radio playlists keep shrinking, musicians could do a lot worse than selling Oscar Mayer wieners along with their music.