I had mixed feelings this week when a song by my beloved but still mostly below-the-radar Tedeschi Trucks Band appeared in a network TV ad (their lyric “I would go anywhere, anytime” from the song ‘Anyhow’ did fit aptly with the Chevy Trucks brand message). But what once seemed unthinkable is now entirely commonplace: the commercialization – literally, being used for commercials – of familiar, sometimes even iconic, popular music songs. And, it seems a bit sad to say, at this point, they’ve all done it.
Though far from the first, The Beatles may have started the mainstream reorientation in 1988 when Nike was allowed to exploit one of the Fab Four’s most radical songs ever. Its name? ‘Revolution.’ As well, there was also their somewhat too on-the-nose usage of ‘Taxman’ by H&R Block. The Rolling Stones commissioned ‘Start Me Up’ to Microsoft; Bob Dylan’s often inscrutable words have been used to promote Travelers Insurance (‘If Not For You’) and Chobani yogurt (‘I Want You’); Chevy previously enjoyed a long ride with Bob Seger’s ‘Like A Rock’; there was Carly Simon’s mouth-watering placement of ‘Anticipation’ for Heinz ketchup; and Office Depot’s apropos hiring of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s ‘Takin’ Care of Business,’ to name but a few.
More than simply the marketing of a recognizable song for a product or company, though, my interest is piqued further where there’s been some adaptation, a bit of wily wordplay, say, to entwine the musical and consumerist message. Elton John once tried to uniquely thread this needle, releasing his 1984 hit ‘Sad Songs (Say So Much)’ concurrently with the only-slightly altered designer jeans campaign “Sasson (Says So Much).” Applebee’s has twice co-opted Robert Palmer to demonstrably less clever results with appetite-suppressing menu jingles “Bad Case of Loving Twos” and “Simply Irresisti-bowls.” And yet, still no one has called upon The Who’s ‘Goin’ Mobile,’ a song seemingly begging to be used in a cell phone ad.
But let’s move to a few of a slightly wackier variety. For years Glad Handi-Wrap smartly reimagined a Duke Ellington composition for the bouncy “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Cling)” (Do Wrap! Do Wrap!). Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’ was used fruitfully in a 2005 Coke Lime commercial with the chorus reinterpreted to, “You put the lime in the Coke, you nut…” While James Brown’s truly moving ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ facilitated an early ‘90s commercial for Senokot (you guessed it, a laxative).
Devo actually re-recorded their own counter-cultural ‘Whip It’ with new product-specific lyrics – “When you’ve got a dirty floor, you must Swiff it” – for a Swiffer WetJet ad. And Hershey’s has even used a lite pop cover of Modern English’s ‘I Melt With You’ in advertisements, despite the fact that the song itself is about making love during a nuclear holocaust. S’more of that? No thanks.
In a favorite, Alice Cooper once appeared as himself in a 2004 Staples commercial shopping for back-to-school supplies with his peevish daughter while his trademark hit “School’s Out” is played. “I thought you said School’s out forever,” the none-too-pleased youngster sneers. “No, no, no,” Alice matter-of-factly corrects, “The song goes, School’s out for summer. Nice try though.”
These days, pharmaceutical companies seem to be making the most therapeutic use of a little lyric/product interplay. Entresto, a heart medicine, features the backing track of Sonny & Cher’s ‘The Beat Goes On.’ And at least two other drugs attempt some catchy connections: one-hit-wonder Pilot’s pop nugget ‘It’s Magic’ for antidiabetic jingle “Oh, ho, ho, Ozempic”; and the easy as 1-2-3-syllable rhythm of COPD-treatment Trelegy is formed from the Jackson 5’s ‘ABC.’
For me, there’s also the very personal one that got away. Decades ago (almost certainly before the now-routine crossover) my friend Duck was employed at Johnson & Johnson and assigned to the account of heartburn care line Mylanta, when I suggested they might re-write the Little Feat classic ‘Oh Atlanta’ for a novel campaign. I bet you can already hear it – “Ooh, Mylanta. Oooh, Mylanta. I said yeah, yeah…Mylanta. Got to get some of you.” Somehow Duck and his creative team did not share my vision. Alas, I coulda been a contender…a Clio contender.
In my estimation, though, the possibility for foremost commercial synergy is yet another, um, painful missed opportunity. In 2004 the family of just-deceased Johnny Cash was approached by the makers of Preparation H about selling the rights to one of The Man in Black’s signature songs, ‘Ring of Fire.’ Friends, consider, if you will, the potential lyrical tie-in of the tune’s memorable refrain:
“And it burns, burns, burns / The ring of fire”
Merle Kilgore, who co-wrote the song with June Carter Cash, thought the idea was funny and was, well, itching to do the deal. But Roseanne Cash (Johnny & June’s daughter), along with the other Cash offspring, were less amused, and blocked the sale – using veto power held through June’s co-writer credit. Roseanne, rightfully, it must be admitted, felt such a use would be demeaning. “The song is about the transformative power of love,” reasoned Cash, “and that’s what it has always meant to me, and what it will always mean to the Cash family.” Character over commercialization; that’s some soothing relief, in the end.