Pleasure and Beauty

Music, Film, Life.

Shannon Coulter

Shannon Coulter
San Francisco, California, USA
October 21
Boombox Serenade
I help filmmakers find and license music for their work. I also write the film-music blog Boombox Serenade. Based in Northern California.

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DECEMBER 10, 2011 6:39PM

Using Art in Advertising Can (Still) Backfire

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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 one guide to music licensing and Advertising Age Editor Scott Donaton is so comfortably backstroking in the bath-like waters of consumer culture that he characterizes music and advertising as being, essentially, the same thing.

“Advertising is entertainment, just like music is entertainment," he says. 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 or that music is advertising. They'd also love for you to forget any pesky differences between entertaiment and art, having themselves forgotten such things long ago...or maybe never bothered to learn.

If that's true, though -- that ads and music are just two different flavors of entertainment -- why do advertisers ever need to edit out lyrics? Why was the line "'You got a great car. Yeah, what's wrong with it today?" edited out of the Dandy Warhols' "New Bohemian" when it was used in a Ford ad? 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?"

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 easily do damage to brand and artist alike. I'd only very rarely begrudge an artist their licensing fee, of course, especially given how tough it is for musicians to make a living wage in the U.S., but just because the practice has become prevalent doesn't mean it can't harm a song's meaning. 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 fucking school project to that song, knowing the image would forever be conjured every time I heard it and the associations I had with the song -- forever undermined.

So I was gratified to read, awhile back, that there's some empirical evidence for such feelings -- findings that using art in advertising can backfire. The study focused on visual art, but has implications for music, too.

One study involved a 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 affluent little Ethan merrily crafting away 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 it. It was being used as a "product relevant illustration," and so, reluctantly, I demoted it. 

By contrast, there's this Chipotle ad, which features Willie Nelson's plaintive cover of Coldplay's "The Scientist" as the soundtrack for an animated depiction of society's slide toward industrial farming practices. The fact that the song is a cover is important because it makes the listener hear it in a new way, without having to re-frame and possibly downgrade the original. The fact that the song is both sad and allowed to be fully sad taps into real feelings on the subject and neatly skirts any negative ones about fast food chains. I like how the song relates only indirectly to the subject matter; it's the emotional tone that matters most. It was a brave choice and 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 are 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 their satiny little lozenge as mere vessel for your personal taste. Apple made its customers the most exciting thing about the product.

That's a hard trick to pull off in a world where artists like Macy Gray create exclusive bonus tracks just for Target and 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. It being such a hard trick to pull off, most advertisers will persist in not trying to do so. They'll continue on  dropping tracks in 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 to rise above the din. 

But that's ok. After all, it's just advertising.

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This is really interesting. I don't remember the first time I heard a popular song married to a product or which one it was - but I do remember how it felt - not right. Are you supposed to be listening to the song or concentrating on what it's selling? And how much is the artist making every time the ad is aired. That used to be called "selling out" didn't it?

On one level it's no biggie. If I were a musician and had the opportunity for the exposure, the money, the product association, I'm sure I jump. On another level, for me it dilutes both the product and the song. Or image because it's not just music as you pointed out.

I agree with you, advertising is not entertainment any more than a store logo is a work of art. I miss jingles. I miss songs that were created for a specific business or store. I can't say if they influenced my brand loyalty or buying habits. But I will say that for me at least, it is a turnoff to hear a song or band I like pushing something. I tune it out. It's too calculated. Great post.