—by David Mitchel, Vice President of Marketing at Norton Mitchel Marketing

Many commercials have used popular songs to strengthen the marketing message conveyed. When a commercial uses a popular song well, the music is aligned with the visual imagery and words. It creates a synchronized message that brands hope will induce purchase of their products. When a commercial misuses a popular song, it can confuse the target market and reduces the chance of purchase. The following are some effective and ineffective uses of popular songs. It is not meant to be an exhaustive guide; rather, it is meant to stimulate thought and discussion.

Effective Uses

1. Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me” in an ad for Nissan

In the mid 1990s, Nissan made this commercial for their 300ZX sports car. In the ad, a toy character resembling GI Joe finds a toy car version of the Nissan 300ZX. GI Joe drives the Nissan 300ZX at blazing speed to a nearby bedroom with a dollhouse. In the dollhouse, there is a statuesque woman resembling Barbie. GI Joe motions to Barbie and she joins him in the Nissan and they speed away, much to the dismay of a toy resembling Ken.

This ad was brilliant in targeting young men. Performance features of the car were noticeable. The fact that an attractive woman decided to join the driver of the Nissan 300ZX plays well to prospective buyers. Part of the appeal of sports cars from the male buyer perspective is that women find drivers of fast, fun and stylish cars to be attractive. The high energy beat, replete with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar virtuosity and David Lee Roth’s stirring vocals, reinforces the excitement of the ad. Many men fantasize about driving a high performance vehicle with a beautiful woman beside them. Nissan appealed to this emotion, creating brand awareness and fostering positive brand beliefs with a memorable message.

2. A Flock of Seagulls’ "I Ran" in an ad for “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”

"Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" is set in fictional Vice City (based on Miami) in the 1980s. The objective of the game is to complete various missions in the criminal underworld. Choosing a one hit wonder song from the 1980s was smart to fit the setting. The imagery in the commercial was spectacular, as there are fast motor vehicles, impressive firearms and attractive women in bikinis. The song has a bit of swagger to it, suitable for the lifestyle depicted in the game. All of the elements worked well for the target market of the game, males ages 14-25.

3. Player’s "Baby Come Back" in ads for Swiffer

Swiffer aired many commercials with this song and similar themes. According to the ad, Swiffer cleans so much better than a mop and broom. The end user will not want to go back to the mop and broom. Therefore, the mop and broom must try to court the person doing the cleaning into taking them back. "Baby Come Back" comes off as a feeble attempt by an inferior product to win a heart back. Swiffer demonstrates a functional benefit in these ads in a humorous way, making it memorable.

Ineffective Uses

1. A modified version of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” in a JC Penney ad

In this commercial, we see high school students of the 2000s inside the high school used for the setting of the classic 1985 film “The Breakfast Club”. These high school students are re-enacting scenes from the film, which ended with the Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” playing. 2000s era high school students would not re-enact scenes from the “The Breakfast Club” in their daily routines. The 2000s fashions of brands carried by JC Penney are not tremendously consistent with the clothing styles of the characters of the film. The updated version of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is less sonically appealing than the original. The entire commercial is unsuccessful attempt to generate nostalgia.

2. “Oh Yeah” by Yello in a Twix ad

This song was most famously used in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. “The Simpsons” use this song when Duffman, the pitchman for the Duff Beer brand, appears. In this Twix ad, the commercial urges the viewer not to ask “What are you going to do today” but rather to ask “What aren’t you going to do today”, an obvious reference to a line in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Then, it is urged not to ask “What is in a Twix” but rather “What isn’t a Twix”. The commercial then describes Twix’s attributes as chewy caramel, rich milk chocolate, and a great cookie crunch. To me, that appears to be defining Twix, precisely the question that we shouldn’t be asking. This seems like a very confusing message.

“Oh Yeah” is a terrific, catchy song, and has the potential to be used effectively. I can envision an ad with someone eating Twix and getting great satisfaction from it, with “Oh Yeah” reinforcing the main marketing message.

3. Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” in a Gap ad

In this ad, a classic holiday tune is mixed with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. Throughout the ad, people are moving to the music in a nonsensical manner. When “Ice Ice Baby” is spliced into the middle of this ad, people are ice skating. This may explain the logical connection. There is no central message in this ad promoting the advantages of the Gap brand.

This commercial debuted in late 1999. In April 2002, BrandChannel released an article highlighting Gap’s numerous branding problems of the time. From reading that article, it was obvious that consumers didn’t understand much of the content of Gap’s advertisements during that era. The “Ice Ice Baby” commercial was a part of that trend.

A quality song doesn’t make a quality advertisement, as the Twix example clearly illustrates. However, a misused song along with a confusing central message is a recipe for an undesirable outcome. The effective examples of popular music in advertising were not effective because of the song, but were effective because of the synchronicity between the music and other elements of the advertising message.