Don’t use my favourite songs for your ads – Just don’t!

August 26, 2010

I was sitting at my mac the other evening writing something for this blog, when I heard a familiar song on the TV. I turned around, expecting to see the video of They Might Be Giant’s Birdhouse In Your Soul, which always makes me smile. Instead, the vision that accompanied my song was an advert – for children’s shoes. NOOOOOOOO! I nearly catapulted myself to casualty, tripping on the rug while running as fast as I could to turn the sound down. After many years of pleasure gained from this wonderfully quirky song, I was not going to have it associated with a TV advert, for crying out loud. This is the second time I’ve found myself wringing my hands at the mangling of my favourite songs recently. A lovely little pop song called Young Folk by Peter, Bjorn and John (the Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve mix is particularly good) has been used for a poxy DIY store ad. A D-I-Y store. What’s that about, eh? Nay, nay, and thrice nay, as Frankie Howerd would say.

Why do they do this, these ad people? Why plunder the back catalogue of our favourite songs to sell their tat? Expensive tat in some instances, granted, but tat nevertheless. What happened to the skill of the jingle writer? And I don’t mean this:

Ten people can hear the same song and have very different experiences because of the place where they first heard it, the videos they’d created in their heads where that song became the backdrop (or maybe that’s just me), and the comfort it brought to them in hard times. Once that song has been used in an advert, everyone has the same image planted in their head, and most of it is not that good. It’s just plain wrong.

Pop music is not the only genre where memories attached to a song are overwritten by irritating ads like an old cassette. Classical music has been used in adverts for as long as God’s been a boy. Aficionados of this type of music must weep every time they hear yet another snippet of their favourite movement, tacked onto an advert. They know where those snippets are from and the context in which it appears, but the rest of us don’t, so O Fortuna from Carmina Burana becomes the Old Spice ad and The Flower Duet from the Opera Lakmé becomes the British Airways ad. I remember when Nessun Dorma, sung by Luciano Pavarotti, became a huge hit when it was used as the theme song for Italia 90. I was moved like many people at that time. Did it make me want to find out more about the opera it came from and spark a passion for classical music as a result? Did it heck!

There’s another species in the TV advert musicquarium*. I’m going to call this creature bit sample. This is where you hear new music in an advert and a single is released on the back of it, depending on popularity. The full single is rarely as good as the bit sampled on the ad. This method was used extensively in the 90s before the ad men finally ran out of ideas. Levis jeans did it brilliantly. I give you two examples: one ad used a really weird track with speeded up vocals called Spaceman by Babylon Zoo.

We were excited. We bought the track. Cue disappointment when we found out the speeded up vocals topped and tailed a miserable dirge in the middle.

On the other hand, the music used on another Levis advert, Underwater Love by Smoke City was really good.

So have we run out of musical ideas so soon into the 21st century? Will all our favourite songs and the memories that go with it, plummet to the ground like a pigeon shot by the unimaginative gun of advertisers? I’ll say it again and I’ll say it now. Leave the songs alone, son. Just leave it.

*Original Musicquarium is an album by Stevie Wonder. It’s very good, but doesn’t even touch the sides of Songs In The Key Of Life.



  1. Flat Eric was another one. Great little advert, but irritating as hell when released as a single.

    Babylon Zoo, though? Forgotten completely about them. I remember just before the release of Spaceman an interview with Jas Mann their lead singer/ songwriter in either the NME or Melody Maker where he proclaimed himself a genius and how he was going to change the British music scene. All hype. Not seen him at all since his unfortunate appearance on Brass Eye.

    • Oh, Flat Eric. I remember him well. Not only did they bring the single out (which I bought, to my shame), but there were soft toys and all sorts of other stuff. They certainly got their money’s worth with that one.

      Thanks for that info about Babylon Zoo. I have a vague recollection of Jas Mann bigging up his bad self. Shame he couldn’t follow through.

  2. * I agree. It isn’t even close.

    • There’s not much that can touch Songs In The Key Of Life, to be honest.

  3. You have to remember that many of these songs are already thriving within certain sections of the community…. It just takes one person in the marketing team + one musician/band + one publisher in the right place to make it all happen.
    Very rarely are musicians commissioned to write music for specific ads as it costs too much. Brands these days will pay a lump sum to a musician (if they are lucky) to buy the rights to use a song. If the musicians label/management is good – they will bring out the single/album on the back of it.

    The kind of interest + potential sales that doing something like an ad will generate will be huge!

    Its the only REAL way (other than getting your track on a TV Programme a la Glee/X factor) any musician will make money these days! So no one in their right mind would turn it down.

    • “Its the only REAL way (other than getting your track on a TV Programme a la Glee/X factor) any musician will make money these days!”

      Doesn’t that make you sad? It does me. I can understand it from that point of view, really I can, but I can’t help feeling that eventually we will all be poorer for it. I want certain memories attached to my favourite songs to remain. If it means I have to risk breaking my neck by running to the TV to turn the sound down before new images are planted in my brain, then so be it.

  4. I don’t like Wild Beasts being used on the Santander advert – it’s dreamy and lovely and gives me a good opportunity to listen to the last segment over and over but a BANK?! I even would have been more accepting of a CAR!

    Then it calms to think that it’s the label giving the music away, not the band.
    But yes, They Might Be Giants on that advert is pretty awful. Good job it’s not on a lot!

    • Oh, and I actually quite like the Homebase advert with Peter Bjorn and John in it: it’s not particularly offending and what’s happening in the advert is nice and pretty… And now I sound like a crackpot.

      • You’re not a crackpot! Each to their own. I’m sure many people like it, or don’t really care. It’s just my bugbear and I have to live with it.

        Wild Beasts on an ad for a bank? Oi! Santander! No!

  5. Also a favourite of mine, sadly ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ could not have been used without prior permission from the composer/writer, so ultimately we have him or her to blame. Advertisers pay composers large sums of money for use of their material, which is why, of course, classical music is widely used as it’s out of copyright.

    • I hadn’t thought about that regarding classical music. Of course they can use it with impunity because of expired copyright.

      The other thing which does my nut is the use of the original theme to a film or TV show for an ad. I can think of two running right now: the theme to The New Avengers for the Pimms ad and the original The Taking of Pelham 123 for Southern Comfort, I think.

  6. I have to say, I love hearing an old tune on an advert. I love the old Jazz, like the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to name a few. Sometimes these classics are forgotton, and I smile when they are spear-head an advertising campaign.

    So I have to say am all for it. You can’t beat a bit of Frank Sinatra and Dionne Warwick’s dulcet tomes playing in the background of an advert.

    Most of the tunes I have, are as a result of hearing them on an advert. I would never have posessed any material from that particular artist in question if I hadn’t contacted the TV channel in quesstion.

    A thumbs up for me am afraid.

    • A few typo’s there. After effects of being inebriated last night Lol.

      • Groovy Chick, you’re a dirty stopout, you are… Lol!

        You’re giving a good argument for the other side and that’s great, so don’t apologise. I appreciate that new (old?) songs can be discovered through adverts, so in that way it’s useful. I just don’t want another image put in my head by advertisers that will change how I feel about a song forever. My resistance to change, at least in this instance, is of course part of being Officially Old™

        • Yeah, I see your point. But remember it is the artists that sanction it, so the blame has to be apportioned to them.

          Moby done the same thing and got a lot of flack for it as his fans, thought he had sold out Lol.

          I, on the other hand enjoyed hearing his music on the adverts, I would never have known much of his music, if it wasn’t for the adverts. Lol

  7. Nessun Dorma had already been used for a Pirelli advert before it became popular through the Three Tenors/Pavarotti/Italia 90. That’s where I first heard it and came to love it.

    • Oh, right. I didn’t know that. Or maybe I did see it years ago and had forgotten. I’d better go find it on YouTube. In the meantime, I’ll have to concede to the notion of new (to you) music being discovered through an advert.

      I still don’t like my personal favourites being used in that way, though. The Saxophone bit in Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street has been used for an insurance ad, for goodness sake. It’s not even a good ad. That’s what really hacks me off!

      • No, not Baker Street! I could have gone at least the rest of the year without knowing that song was violated.

        • I’m sorry to break that one to you, Oma. Be grateful that you haven’t yet heard it, and are unlikely to, as it only features in the UK as far as I know. I may have to consider moving closer to a hospital, such is the increasing danger of me doing damage trying to get to the TV/radio to turn it down before my music memories are wiped forever.

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