Commercial Success

In the Eighties, your grandmother listened to enough Eric Clapton to join in any discussion of guitar heroes. Of course, grandma only heard one Clapton song during the past ten years--and that short number was always interrupted at the end by a commercial announcer proclaiming, "The night belongs to Michelob." But by 1989--through sheer repetition alone--she'd heard enough of ol' Slowhand's style to pick out his influence on any early George Harrison solo album.

In the Eighties, too, those kids you could never tear away from Duran Duran cassettes long enough to check out the really good stuff on your old Motown discs suddenly turned into walking encyclopedias of Sixties rock, gleefully singing more verses of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Respect" than you could remember yourself. And out of nowhere, preschoolers whose favorite singers had been Big Bird and Kermit were bopping around the house humming "Revolution" and "Who Do You Love."

These were the entirely possible results of the rock music/advertising marriage, a once unthinkable union that turned rock stars into product pushers and remade classic hits into thirty-second jingles throughout the Eighties.

Rock's migration to prime-time TV even made former bad boys like Lou Reed and David Bowie as common a guest in the Middle American living room as Ronald McDonald and John Madden. But there were, of course, negative sides to all this. When the Rolling Stones, rock's ultimate outlaws, became the first respectable rock band to accept corporate sponsorship by welcoming Jovan perfume aboard on their 1981 U.S. tour, the critics cried "sellout" and heralded the end of the music's antiestablishment stance.

But as the Stones close out the Eighties with a barrage of Budweiser commercials on TV and their own line of upscale clothing in the department stores, it's clear that there's no turning back. As we bid adieu to the Eighties, then, let us pay tribute to all those exiles from Main Street who've learned to succeed on Madison Avenue:

THE JACKSON JIVE It was Michael Jackson who pioneered the concept of the "event" commercial--a music-filled spot so hyped and hotly anticipated it seemed like something you needed to buy tickets to before turning on your TV. The first pair of Jackson's seven (to date) Pepsi commercials, premiered on the 1984 Grammy Awards and publicized for weeks before, resulted in both the soft drink company's best sales performance in six years and a how-to article in Rolling Stone by PepsiCo prez Roger Enrico.

The cola company's association with the star was not without its sticky moments, though. Jackson, who almost gave his hair for Pepsi when a flash pot ignited too close to his head in the first spot, openly admitted to never touching the teeth-rotting fizz juice himself. And his second series of ads, tied to the release of his Bad album, were delayed so long Pepsi ended up employing (and exhausting) the appeal of two other major pop artists--David Bowie and Tina Turner--just to fill the gap.

Coca-Cola, meanwhile, had also attempted to hitch its wagon to the Michael magic. The George Michael magic, that is, which the company severely overestimated. While the singer's Faith album was the big winner on the '88 Grammys show, his event ad (interspersing scenes of the star taking the stage with shots of a Mexican matador entering the ring) proved a dud for Diet Coke. The spot was soon replaced by a previous ad featuring talking penguins.

"REVOLUTION" WILL BE TELEVISED In 1985, Northern Songs (newly purchased by Michael Jackson for a cool $47.5 million), licensed the Beatles catalogue for use in commercials. It was a limited use: The advertisers were forbidden to change any lyrics; for example, no "Yesterday/All my fabrics were so dull and gray . . . ." But the move nearly sparked a revolution among Beatle worshipers. Money can't buy you love, maybe, but it bought the following advertisers some fab tunes:

Lincoln-Mercury--"Help!" and "Good Day Sunshine." Employing sound-alike singers, hand-picked by George Martin's production company, and recordings supervised by the former Beatles producer himself, these were the first, and ultimately the least objectionable, of the Lennon and McCartney jingles. The spot for "Help!" featured a cast of baby boomers engaged in frantic chase scenes reminiscent of Richard Lester's goofy directing style that was faithful to the movie of the same name.

Chrysler--"Something." With a recording more closely resembling Old Blue Eyes' version of the Abbey Road standard, this ad for the luxury LeBaron undoubtedly slipped by a lot of Fab Four fans. Not George Harrison, however, who eventually went on MTV to protest the increasing appropriation of his band's legacy into "adverts."

Nike--"Revolution." The last straw. This black-and-white ad, showcasing a carelessly edited mix of the actual Beatles recording (a violation of the licensing agreement), inspired the first true group effort by the surviving Beatles in almost twenty years. They sued. Like the old days, too, a new Fifth Beatle suddenly emerged in the press: their lawyer.

JUST SAY MAYBE As rock stars struggled to clean up their acts in the "Just Say No" Eighties, a lot of spirits companies watched their million-dollar spokesmen pour their product publicly down the drain. Eric Clapton denounced his own Michelob ad in interviews when he went on the wagon soon after it began airing. And sometime singer Bruce Willis left his old pal Mister Seagrams in the lurch when he married, spawned a baby and apparently switched to milk and cookies.

But a newly dried-out Ringo Starr had the best line when asked if he felt hypocritical about having endorsed Sun Country Classic wine coolers while he himself was struggling with alcohol addiction. Yes, said the former Beatle (who subsequently switched to hawking Oldsmobiles in ads with his teen-age daughter, Lee) in a People interview, endorsing those coolers had become a big lie. After all, in his state, he "never even got a buzz" from the damn stuff anyway.

LOOK WHAT THEY DONE MA, INDEED The most irritating ads by far were the ones that attempted to bait the baby boomer by hooking him in with a tune from his past, then switching the lyrics in midstream to some inane product pitch. Children of this target market have grown up learning Minute Maid--not Stevie Wonder--is the sunshine of their lives, and that graham and honey taste--not young lovers--go "Happy Together." For them, the original words to the following commercialized songs are presented in parentheses:

"When a Man Loves a Pizza"-- Tony's Frozen Pizza. (Sorry, kids. "A Woman" makes a better partner according to Percy Sledge.)

"Look What They've Done to My Oatmeal"--Oatmeal Raisin Crisp. (Ironically based on Melanie's ditty about musical mutilation--substitute "Song Ma" for "Oatmeal." Produced by sadists bent on driving a sweet little flower girl insane.)

"Sippin' My Hires All Day"--Hires Root Beer. (Otis Redding had been merely "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay" in the song released just after his death.)

"R.O.A.S.T.E.D"--Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Aretha Franklin spelled it "R.E.S.P.E.C.T."--which is what the Colonel should have shown this soul classic.)

"Oh, Buick!"--Buick. ("Oh, Boy!" is what Buddy Holly exclaimed originally--and probably from his grave when this '87 jingle aired.) "Cross the Road Jack"--Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Ray Charles sang both this jingle and the original "Hit the Road Jack"--indicating the Genius has probably already crossed the road himself.)

SPOT LOGIC Sometimes the match-up between song and product was so impossibly obvious, the campaign seemed to have been dreamed up by a group of snickering sixth-graders at recess. To wit:

"I Can See Clearly Now"--Windex.
"Haven't Got Time for the Pain"-- Medipren.
"Wipe Out"--Stridex.

"I'm on Fire"--Preparation H. (Actually, this last one never happened. But probably only because the company's agency knew Bruce Springsteen, a rare nonsellout holdout, had already turned down Lee Iacocca and Ronald Reagan for commmercial endorsements.)

PRODUCTS OF IMAGINATION? MTV denied it, claiming no video was accepted for airplay if it contained lots of blatent product endorsements in the lyrical or visual content. But "product placers" at the leading cola companies, whose job had always been to supply product, signs, vending machines and so on to movie-company propmasters in exchange for valuable exposure, quickly recognized the value of donating a few Classic Coke glasses or Pepsi machines to rock video directors in need of props.

Hence, when the camera panned by Chicago's Peter Cetera sitting in an easy chair singing "You're the Inspiration" with a half-filled, old-fashioned Coke glass within arm's reach, you weren't sure if the man from Coke hadn't paid a visit to the set earlier in the day. And what about that bright red Coke machine those ZZ Top girls were leaning against in "Gimme All Your Lovin"? Did it just happen to be sitting at that old gas station when the film crew rolled in?

But the best accidental ad occurred in Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" video. It was filmed in a Hoboken, New Jersey, bar that just happened to have a big, neon Genesee beer sign behind the stage. As Bruce swung into the verse of the song that goes, "Think I'm goin' to the well tonight and I'm gonna drink till I get my fill," the Genesee sign loomed as large as life right over the Boss' shoulder.

Although the brewery insisted the sign wasn't placed there deliberately, the company was quite grateful for the free ad. "We sent a nice thank-you letter to Bruce," reported Genesee's P.R. man in the summer of '85. "And we sent him a tee shirt that says Brewed in the U.S.A."

ADLAND'S GREATEST PITCHES AND HITS Not long ago, Anheuser-Busch released a cassette of the songs used in its Michelob commercials through mail order. It was a fittingly unorthodox move for a company whose ads had actually broken hit singles before they were played on the radio (Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" and Steve Winwood's "What the Night Can Do"). Among the other night music on Michelob's tape were new songs by Roger Daltrey, Wang Chung, and Clapton's superior remake of his old "After Midnight."

But Michelob wasn't the only advertiser that could have released a hit album of its commercial themes in the Eighties. Here are some additional albums that could have littered our record stores if other advertisers put the music we heard on TV into nice, neat collections:

Lincoln-Mercury's Boomer Bait:
"Born To Be Wild"--Southside Johnny;
"Ain't No Mountain High Enough"-- Valerie Simpson;
"Reach Out I'll Be There"--the Four Tops (remake);
"Be My Baby"--Ronnie Spector (remake);
"Wouldn't It Be Nice"--Lou Cristy;
"You're a Friend of Mine"--Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Levi's The Blue Album:

Few of the songs in Levi's long- running "501 Blues" series were tunes you could attach formal titles to, much less artists (although the company did discover Bobby McFerrin before Bill Cosby did). But its variety of fifteen-second ditties sung by anonymous doo-wop groups, New York street performers and gospel choirs would have made an interesting long-player.

Various Artists, Hooked on Commercials (the Original Recordings):
"Natural Woman"--Aretha Franklin (Chic Jeans);
"Who Do You Love"--George Thorogood (Honda Scooters);
"Some Like It Hot"--Power Station (Burger King);
"Walk This Way"--Aerosmith (Sun Country wine coolers);
"Freeway of Love"--Aretha Franklin (Burger King).

WHO SELLS OUT? Not every major rock star, of course, was willing to turn his/her hit singles into jingles for a quick buck. Prince held out (although his Batman album was certainly quite a marketing tool). Springsteen, as noted, stayed clear of Madison Avenue (although the influence of his oft misinterpreted Born in the U.S.A. was all over Adland in 1986, from Chrysler's "The Pride Is Back" jingle to AM-PM Mini-Markets' "I'm the Boss!" campaign). And Neil Young pre-empted all possible sponsorship offers by lampooning the whole commercialization of rock 'n' roll in his song and video, "This Note's for You."

But for the most part, "selling out" was no longer a concern to rock stars. Rather, the issue was the subtleness of the sellout. How to do commercials without looking too cheesy. On one end of the scale were the Glenn Freys and Ray Parker Jrs., who pretty much abandoned their music careers when they found out how lucrative commercial work could be. Down the line were the Robert Plants and Robert Palmers, who simply altered their rock videos a little to allow a few product shots every few seconds.

Then there were the subtler sellouts, older artists like Randy Newman, Phoebe Snow, and Richie Havens who sang off-screen so only their fans would know it was them.

Finally, there was Madonna, who did her Pepsi commercial, then turned around and made such a deliberately controversial video for the same song that the advertiser recoiled from playing her spot more than once. By co-opting the momentum generated by all of Pepsi's efforts for her own promotional means--and collecting $5 million from the company in the process--Madonna was the only artist in the Eighties to have it both ways: all the riches to be reaped from selling out without actually looking as though she'd done it.

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