Car Commercials

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This is Celia Hirschman for On The Beat.

Back in the 60's and 70's, if a band sold their hit single to an ad agency, for the purpose of selling a car on TV, we'd laugh and say their careers were over. They'd have "sold out to the man" and it was just a matter of time until the general public caught on.

But turn on your TV today & you're likely to hear Sting, Aerosmith, Sheryl Crow, and lots other popular legends as well as a host of up and coming musical artists, like Dirty Vegas, Groove Armada, The Polyphonic Spree, Moby, The Walkman, and others, selling their songs for car commercials.

It's a completely different world now and its very big business. How did we get there?

Without a doubt, MTV has had its' hand in marrying the popular song with visual images on television. And Hollywood films over the last 20 years have showcased an amazing selection of contemporary music. Consider that most generation x & yers have been weaned on music integrated for a visual popular culture. Viewers have become very comfortable listening to music outside their radios and home stereos. We don't judge where we hear our music anymore. We'll take it almost anywhere.

And what does all this commercial exploitation actually do for the art, and the commerce of a song?

The ad agencies pay handsomely to license a single track for a TV commercial and the exposure can become an important component in the overall marketing campaign.

There are tons of examples of this - Nick Drake's song, "Pink Moon" when placed in a VW commercial, radically changed his sales base from unknown towell known through a single TV car campaign. Moby launched his career on licensing every one of his debut album tracks to commercials. And probably the most successful example of advertising as promotion to date is Sting. His last record was stalling in sales when Stings' manager, Miles Copeland, approached Jaguar on making a TV commercial. The manager took the advertising idea a step further, having Sting appear in the commercial, singing the song while sitting in a Jaguar. As the Jaguar raced through the desert, Stings' exotic single, titled "Desert Rose" played as the music bed. Mr. Copeland offered Jaguar the track for free, if they would make a significant commitment to running the campaign nationwide. The commercial was a wild success, and the car manufacturer spent 18 million dollars promoting Sting's newest single. Though the song was originally perceived as too exotic to launch at pop radio, once the commercials began to run, the consumer interest in the music was very high.

The net result of all that TV airplay was that 180 Pop radio stations started playing the single and Sting sold over 4 million records, which far exceeded his previous solo sales.

You'll find this kind of music marketing much more common in Japan and Europe, but here in the United States, it's still relatively new ground. And with our shrinking promotional opportunities in the U.S., and the limited funds for true mass marketing and advertising, licensing is an interesting and inventive way to bring off beat music to an active buying audience.

The politics of this kind of culture may not be your cup of tea. Many are still offended at the idea of a song being used to help outside corporations profit through consumerism. But the reality is that most consumers are not offended, and in fact Jaguar saw the greatest number of young people test driving their cars following Sting's commercial. Ford Motors regularly sponsors concerts from Beyonce to Toby Keith and Chevrolet has a touring rock & roll memorabilia show.

In this business where radio airplay is limited and competition for attention is fierce, artists are turning to other businesses to help them grow their audiences. And for new artists, it can be the starting ground to breaking in America.

This is Celia Hirschman for On The Beat.