Some of you young'uns out there may find this hard to imagine, but there was a time when rock music was not used in advertising. The advent of rock being used to induce us to buy non-rock-related products began in the mid-1980s.
There were a few random instances before then, but around 1985 and 1986, there was a sea change in the kinds of music commonly heard in advertising. Before that time, ad music was mostly jingles, short songs written expressly for that product. But beginning around 1985, music that had been associated with counterculture - with social rebellion - was now used to sell anything from laundry detergent to cars to candy.
Much ink was expended, many column inches filled (this was in the era of print, after all) about what this meant, why people were upset by it, and where it was heading. I wish so much I had those stories now. I'd love to quote them here, as well as remember what songs and ads were creating the controversies.
People who care about music, and who care about rampant commercialism, were upset that the soundtrack of our lives - the specific memories we associate with certain songs - were being exploited by corporate advertisers. We were upset that cultural icons were being co-opted by the consumer culture. We were upset because the overexposure of advertising can make it impossible to break those connections.
A notable landmark in the rock-in-advertising trend involved some dancing dried fruit known as The California Raisins. There had been a big revival of interest in Motown and other music of that era, fueled in large part by the soundtrack to the 1983 movie "The Big Chill", which itself was fueled by companies trying to capture as much Baby Boomer disposal income as possible.
Another bar was crossed in 1988, when Nike unveiled its "Revolution" ad, using the song without the permission of the three surviving members of The Beatles, who sued the company and got the ads pulled.
In those days - here's something you really won't believe - it was actually controversial for band tours or summer concert serieses to have a corporate sponsor. Does it taint your music in some way if you play for Miller Beer Music-on-the-Pier? Are these bands selling out? Although Neil Young wrote a song about this, most people soon stopped asking these questions. Now a concert series or tour without such advertising is a quaint, underfunded anachronism.
Most of the outrage over advertising co-opting rock music is well in the past. Ten years later, when the Rolling Stones licensed "Start Me Up" to Microsoft - the first time the band had allowed one of their songs to be used in an ad campaign - it was mostly written about as an interesting business deal.
But I might as well hang a huge OLD FART sign above my desk, because the use of rock songs in advertising still disgusts me. Partly it's because I am so bothered by the encroachment of advertising in our lives. Partly it's because I always mute the ads when watching TV, so this commonplace phenomenon still has the power to shock me. In recent years, I've been amazed and horrified at the Clash's version of "Pressure Drop" selling Nissan, and The Pogues selling Cadillacs. (Clash songs have been used by Cadillac, too.). Before that it was Iggy Pop shilling for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
Seth Stevenson, who writes about advertising for Slate, asked readers for their favorite examples of incongruous advertising soundtracks. The question was in response to the song "Sixteen Tons" being used in "an ad that touts the wonders of coal". Stevenson says the overwhelming winner was Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life": "Nothing says maritime comfort like a song about shooting up junk." For more examples, and a very entertaining read, go here. I was very pleased that, when I Googled these songs and ads, the first posts that came up were always outraged or disgusted bloggers. Good job.
On the other hand, for every post by someone who dislikes the idea, I found a list by someone who enjoy it.
I try not to be absolute about these things. If a struggling young artist can make a pile of money, which she can use to finance her own art, I wouldn't condemn her for it. But money has a way of becoming addictive, and an addiction to money has a way of corrupting art. There are other ways to make money besides commercial licensing deals. And how many artists who license these songs actually need the money? Wanting more money to support a certain lifestyle is not the same as needing it to pay the bills.
Perhaps you're wondering what inspired this post. Simple answer: the song "Everyday People" selling Smarties.
Americans may think of this, but in Canada, Smarties are like grossly inferior M&Ms. I know many Canadians have a deep sentimental attachment to Smarties. But they are candy. Bits of sugar and artificial colouring.
"Everyday People" is a song about striving for peace and equality.
Written by Sylvester Stewart (known as Sly Stone), "Everyday People" was Sly and the Family Stone's first number one hit. Sly and the Family Stone were, not incidentally, the first racially integrated band in rock history.
The song, also included on their great 1969 album "Stand!", has been covered by artists as disparate as Aretha Franklin, Joan Jett, Belle & Sebastian, and Pearl Jam. One of my favourite bands, Arrested Development, used it as the central riff of their song "People Everyday". Here's Sly and the Family Stone performing the song.
It is not about buying candy.