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October 22, 2018
At Last, Can We Stop Using Famous Songs to Prop Up Bad Ads?
When Borrowed Interest Doesn’t Make For Interesting Commercials
So, I’m watching TV. Live. Yeah, the way no one supposedly does anymore. All of a sudden, a quick burst of familiar string music comes on. And then, a voice known as the soulful heart of a million wedding first dances comes through the speakers:
“At laaaast…my lo-o-ve has come along…”
It’s Etta James. And the object of her long-desired affection, for the next 30 seconds, is Applebee’s new Neighborhood Pastas.
I’m open-mouthed. Not because of the extreme close-up of melted cheese and rigatoni twirled around a fork, but because I simply can’t believe what I’m seeing, or hearing.
It turns out the spot is part of a campaign that simply marries popular songs to the Applebee’s promotion-of-the-moment. Melissa Etheridge’s intensely personal “Come to My Window” is used to promote the chain’s drive-thru window service, natch. Applebee’s isn’t alone in this simplistic song appropriation. Capital One is also doing something similar with Prince and Michael Jackson tunes, including “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” 
Yeah, I’ve had enough. 
Will this “borrowed interest” creative technique ever go out of fashion? Has the ad industry decided that popular songs are the best method to interest a disinterested audience? Is any song sacred enough to be spared this fate? 
In an age when every marketing guru and their sister is dumping on the very notion of TV advertising, the last thing the ad industry needs is to waste golden creative opportunities on golden oldies.
We’re perfectly OK appropriating well-known tunes as a way to build a positive brand image, yet no creative worth their salt these days would dare to write the kind of jingles they did 40 or 50 years ago — the kind people actually remembered for decades. Hell, Luke Sullivan flat-out told a generation of creatives to avoid jingles “as you would a poisonous toad. They are death.” So we decided that it’s better to lift an already popular song than use our creative skills to make one up. 
Still, it was a gradual creep toward acceptance. I remember being in college when some folks were apoplectic because Bob Dylan allowed an accounting firm (yes, an accounting firm!) to use “The Times They Are A Changin’” in a Super Bowl spot. And I recall when Neil Young proudly said he wouldn’t ever sing for Pepsi or Coke like a common shill. But then I also remember when Nick Drake became the hottest dead musician around when Volkswagen resurrected his career (and his CD sales) by using “Pink Moon” in a universally praised TV spot.
I actually don’t blame any up-and-coming artist, or an established one that needs a little cash, for selling out. We all know the economics of the music industry are as dire as any other legacy media business. So any artist would be foolish to turn down big brand cash. In fact, with a little Googling and Shazaming I’ve been able to discover and actually purchase some good music because it caught my ear during a commercial break. 
Sometimes a great song choice will add depth and meaning to the narrative or storyline of a commercial. But when the song is a substitute for an idea, that’s when it falls flat. And I think that’s occurring too much. Take that song licensing budget, put it towards some more concepting time, and we might produce better, more effective work.
And as it stands, I think these ads air way too briefly to have a lasting impact. Which leads to another phenomenon I’ve noticed: The reuse of songs for different brands. I recently heard Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together” in a spot for Amazon, and remember several years ago that Wrangler jeans used it. Or was it for Lee? I can’t quite recall. And that’s the point. (Even “At Last” was previously used by Jaguar in the mid-90s. Perhaps now you’re supposed to drive your Jag to Applebee’s.)
Maybe a familiar tune has a better shot at perking up the ears than unfamiliar music or a dialogue-heavy commercial. A neuroscientist could explain that much better than I. But perhaps it’s also time to actually consider what real TV viewers think. What do they recall? Will they remember what product was being advertised? Does the nostalgia hit of a familiar tune actually help sell pasta, or cars, or toothpaste? Most importantly, is the best our industry can collectively do, creatively speaking? 
I don’t know the answer. Or maybe the answer is Blowin’ In The Wind. Has a hair-care company used that one yet?

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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