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You Say You Want A. . .Car? 

Sting pioneers revolutionary trail to TV commercials

It looked like your typical VH1 music video. Gordon Sumner, aka Sting, sitting regally ensconced in the back of a speeding luxury car, chauffeured over the desert sands at high speed while singing along to his mega-hit, "Desert Rose," the wind riffling through what was left of his hair.

Except this wasn't a video at all -- it was a TV commercial for Jaguar, the British luxury car maker, which just happened to coincide with the release of Sting's Brand New Day recording in 2000. But wasn't this the same song you can still see on VH1 in the exact same setting? What's going on here?

What happened is that Sting's "people" made a video specifically with the idea of pitching it to Jaguar. Rather than an afterthought, it was part of the pre-release planning, one of those mutually beneficial business deals that just four years later has become a virtual staple of both the advertising and music industries.

This is how Sting described it on the Jaguar website:

"The director proposed a number of cars to be used in the video and I chose the Jaguar S-Type. It's a beautiful car and it evokes the feeling and style of success we were trying to achieve."

The video was then shopped to Jaguar. Sting told Billboard at the time that the luxury automaker "flipped" when presented with the opportunity.

""We'd like to use that as our commercial,'" Sting quoted the Jaguar officials as saying. And when it came time to talk money, Sting -- who lives in a castle -- said, why bother? "We don't really need any money; it's like promotion for our single."

But what about Jaguar? Did it help them, and if so, how? Jaguar wouldn't release any figures, but what the Sting song (and later ads featuring other songs from The Propellerheads and even the Clash) may have done for Jaguar was bought them some cachet with another generation of potential buyers.

But is there hard evidence that a song can sell cars, beer or food? One answer can be found in the old Madison Ave. saw: They wouldn't do it if it didn't work. While Sting's 2000 ad may be the obvious example of the "synergy" (his word) between the music industry and advertisement world, turning tunes into jingles is now not just commonplace, it's practically ubiquitous. The sacrosanct Beatles had their counter-cultural screed "Revolution" turned into a sneaker commercial. Paul McCartney complained vigorously about the use of Beatles material in advertisements (Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to their songs, sold "Revolution" to Nike), all the while selling Buddy Holly songs -- which Sir Paul happens to own the rights to -- to various advertisers.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg: by now, Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" might as well have been written by Chevrolet; the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" sells Microsoft; the Who's "Happy Jack" hawks Hummers, and Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" shills Cadillacs, virtually 24/7 over the last couple of years. The fact that Classic Rock's behemoths have joined the advertising world isn't all that surprising, given that many are as rich as the executives at the same giant corporations -- the major labels -- they've helped enrich over the years.

But lately television sounds increasingly like an underground college radio playlist (or 30- and 60-second snippets of college radio playlists, anyway). From Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Buzzcocks and the aforementioned Clash, advertisers have realized that the only message that matters is: Buy Our Product.

"The lyrics are strong, but they're not offensive to anybody," a Jaguar spokesman told the Boston Globe after the company got the OK to use the anti-capitalism/consumerism "London Calling" in an ad -- especially when almost the only words heard were "London Calling." (Before his death, Joe Strummer justified the use of the song by reminding people that the band had taken huge royalty cuts in order to sell their double and triple albums -- London Calling and Sandinista, respectively -- for single-disc cost. Whatever your take on the issue, it's a good bet the younger Strummer wouldn't have approved.)

As the Globe author contends, it "probably boils down to the fact that commercial-makers are clever enough to know that a song's "real' meaning doesn't actually matter...from an ad-maker's point of view, even the most edgy rock & roll is just so much musical wallpaper."

This all raises the aesthetic and ethical (and often not all that well-thought through) questions many music fans can't get past -- isn't rock & roll supposed to be about rebellion, not propping up the status quo? And what about the corrosive influence of commerce on the art of music-making?

The questions transcend any one era, too, though it appears each generation seems a little less averse to the idea of marketing and music. And whereas a young Bob Dylan would have blanched at the idea of hawking Victoria's Secret lingerie (which a 40-year-older Bob Dylan does), today's artists are often faced with that question at a much younger age. Today's indie heroes, or what passes for counter-cultural icons now, often have to make this decision early in their careers. Unlike the behemoths of Classic Rock lining their already deep pockets, many young artists find themselves virtually forced to turn to television as one of the few outlets through which their music can even be heard -- such is the sordid and homogenous state of both the radio and recording industries. "New Slang" by Sub-Pop's Shins sells Big Macs, Miller Genuine Draft uses Modest Mouse's "Gravity Rides Everything" and Smog's "Held," the Gap peddles Badly Drawn Boy's "The Shining" -- the list is virtually endless and only likely to grow longer.

"This gives them a way to get the word out," said Jon Fine, a reporter for Ad Age and former guitarist for Bitch Magnet who still plays music. "Radio's not going to help, MTV isn't going to help, and the press that reaches a lot of people isn't going to help -- the 300-word record review in Rolling Stone just isn't going to do that much. It's one of the ironies of being in a really commerce-oriented culture like this -- this works. Commercials actually serve as a medium for these guys to get some fans."

Writer Will Bryant of Pitchfork.com, a template for all things indie rock, recently summed up the on-line magazine's viewpoint about finding their heroes unofficial mascots for McDonalds, Nissan and Bud Light.

"We're living in a world, after all, where innovators like Beck, the Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth and, yes, Modest Mouse, record for the biggest corporate media conglomerates on the face of the planet," Bryant wrote. "Hearing your heroes' music in a beer commercial may even be preferable to hearing them on commercial radio, which is awash in so-called "legal payola' and big-money partnerships with major labels."

What's at stake here, after all, can be fairly significant, especially for the unknown artist. Perhaps the mother of all success stories -- or the first sign of the apocalypse, depending on your aesthetic point of view -- was Volkswagen's use of Nick Drake's song, "Pink Moon." In 2000, the same year Sting was whooshing through the desert in his Jaguar, the considerably less expensive VW model Cabrio was introduced simultaneously with a subtle ad depicting a group of 20-somethings opting to skip a party in favor of a nice moonlit drive in their convertible. Playing over the wordless script throughout the 30-second spot was only Drake's ethereal voice and open-tuned guitar. This quiet little song written by a painfully shy performer who died from an overdose of anti-depressives in 1972, caused a revolution in the advertising and music worlds. US sales of Pink Moon rose from 6,000 copies in 1999, prior to the song's use in the Cabrio commercial, to 74,000 copies in 2000, according to Palm, which distributes Drake's music through Hannibal Records (during his short lifetime Drake sold only 5,000 copies of the critically acclaimed record).

"What VW is doing is a savvy kind of marketing aimed at a certain kind of consumer," said Fine.

The more subtle (and cheaper) approach is a staple of the VW vision, Weist said, and compared to most other car sellers, it continues to be a pioneer in this field. The most recent example is the carmaker's use of a song from the little-known singer-songwriter Richard Buckner during the Olympics.

"I went home and thought about the state of my soul before I signed on," Buckner said recently, "but given who it was I said I'd go ahead and do it."

The response so far suggests that Buckner's wallet, if not his soul, may have made the right decision. VWvortex.com has already received numerous queries requesting to know whose song that is that accompanies their latest subtle advertisement.

Buckner's decision was probably made easier, said Fine, by the fact that he -- and other lesser-known musicians -- might not have much choice in the matter if they want to continue making music for a living.

"Let's face it, the margin of being an independent recording musician is really small," Fine said. "Record sales are small, touring is hand-to-mouth, with luck you do pretty well on (merchandise) sales and that keeps you going, and if you can sell a chunk of a song to a car company or a technology company and have it show up in a video game or TV commercial, and maybe you get a check for $35,000 dollars at the end of that year, well, congratulations, you can do music full-time for another year. That's how these guys have to think about it."

Even Sting, perhaps crossing the moat into his castle in his Jaguar, has had the same thought.

"There was a time when you could be worried about being over-exposed," he told Billboard. "Now the case is that you're either over-exposed or you're not exposed at all...if you want to put your product out there, you have to go out and sell it."

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