Using advertising to break new bands is now such an accepted even codified practice that there now entire books and South by Southwest panels on how to do it. "Record deals are so twentieth century," proclaims the blurb for a guide to music licensing. Advertising Age Editor Scott Donaton asserts, “Advertising is entertainment, just like music is entertainment. There’s nothing about selling records that isn’t a commercial process already."
Certainly most advertisers would love you to believe that advertising is entertainment and/or art and that there's no difference between selling music and selling anything else.
If that's true, though -- that ads are entertainment on par with the music featured in those ads -- why do advertisers ever need to edit out lyrics? Why could Philips use a Beatles song to remind people that "It's getting better all the time," but not that "it couldn't get no worse?" Why did Ford edit out the line "'You got a great car. Yeah, what's wrong with it today?" out of the Dandy Warhols' "New Bohemian?"
A work of art without commercial value is not necessarily without value altogether and unless the use of the music in an ad is as artful is the music itself, it can very easily do damage to brand and artist alike. I'd only very rarely begrudge an artist their licensing fee, of course, but just because the practice has become prevalent doesn't mean it can't harm a song's meaning or a brand's equity. I once spent angry hours trying to find out whether Robert Smith was in control of his master rights when HP used"Pictures of You" for a digital camera ad. I remember standing in horror in front of the TV the first time I saw that ad, watching a blonde boy in a brightly striped shirt contentedly working on some school project to that song, knowing the image would forever be conjured every time I heard it.
So I was gratified to read, the other day, that there's some empirical evidence for my feelings on this -- findings that using art in advertising can backfire. The study focused on visual art, but has implications for music, too.
One study involved wine tasting at a bar. While sampling the wine, patrons inspected wine bottles' various labels, which featured paintings by the French artist Renoir. For some customers, the bartender had been coached to comment that the bottle labels featured paintings. People who tasted these wines gave them all "favorable" ratings.
For another group of patrons, though, the bartender was coached to comment that the wine labels depicted people rather than paintings. If the label featured an "appropriate" image, such as "guests at a luncheon," that wine still got favorable ratings, but if the label featured an out-of-place image, such as a woman and child playing with toys, the wine was reviewed less favorably.
The finding is subtle but significant. “Art is valued for its own sake,” said Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. "If brands are associated with art in a tasteful way, consumers will accept and even appreciate it. But as soon as the artwork is viewed as a mere product-relevant illustration, it is demoted to the status of any other ordinary image.
And that's why the use of "Pictures of You" for a digital camera ad made me so sad. The melancholy and longing in that song juxtaposed with the image of little Ethan in his McMansion just did not work. It made me view HP not as cool brand aligned with my Cure-loving self, but out-of-touch and incapable of understanding that song as anything other than a song that happened to mention the word "pictures" in the chorus.
By contrast, let's look at this Chipotle ad, which features Willie Nelson's plaintive cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist" as the soundtrack for an animated depiction of our society's slide toward industrial farming practices. The fact that the song is a cover is important because it makes me hear it in a new way, without having to re-frame and possibly downgrade the original. The fact that the song is sad taps into real feelings about the subject and circumvents my kneejerk negative view of fast food chains these days. I like that the song relates only indirectly to the subject matter; it's the emotional tone of it that matters most. It was a brave, prescriptive move and a message that speaks on many levels, but most of all says, "We feel the same way you do about that stuff and we don't do it."
Of course, Apple's original iPod ads serve as enduring examples of the right way to use music in an ad. In those ads, music was elevated to full co-star and the real, emotional role music plays in our lives was allowed to come through. Music was allowed to be there on its own quirky terms instead of product-relevant illustration. Differences in personal taste were celebrated. Musical choices were propulsive, vibrant, idiosyncratic, and highly variable from one ad to the next. Apple actually seemed to play up the natural friction between the music and the sleekness of the product, depicting that satiny little lozenge as a mere vessel for their customers' personal taste. In fact, Apple made its customers the most exciting thing about the product.
That's a hard trick to pull off in a world where the average consumer understands that hipness itself is now brand-mandatory. Such savviness makes it all the more difficult for even album-released music ever to be perceived as anything more than "product relevant illustration" in any campaign. That won't stop advertisers from trying, though. Many will continue dropping tracks into ads like they're dropping a name, asking only whether their target demographic identifies with it or the artist...never understanding that a mere needle drop does not, itself, represent a strong point of view, but has to be wielded with a strong point of view, too.