Play that funky music

Why Gen-X channel-surfers are blasé about the proliferation of ’ 70s hits in advertising.

Marketing Magazine, July 5, 1999   

For compulsive TV snackers of a certain age, channel surfing can produce confusion.


Top 40 super-gold smashbacks from the 1970s are such a reliable—and seemingly inexhaustible — source for advertising audio that every break sounds less like a mess of commercials and more like a two-minute chunk of short-attention-span Gen-X radio rewind.


The musical selections of just two advertisers amount to a crate-load of K-Tel compilations: Intel and Burger King between them have been running through ’70s Top 40 charts a tune at a time. One Intel example, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (with the words “white boy” carefully excised) has only a tenuous connection to computer hardware. But it must have struck a chord, because it was only one of a series of ’70s chestnuts repurposed to brand CPUs that consumers can’t even buy directly.


Burger King has been methodically stepping through similar wide-legged polyester territory in platform shoes. It’s now sticking with what works: a price-point come-on backed with songs that the target demo recalls from the era when it first got its driver’s license and started hitting the BK drive-thru: Chic’s “Le Freak,” Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” and, as they used to say on those K-Tel ads, “many, many more.”


One of the more interesting reactions to Gen-X adolescent audio reprocessing is the lack of a reaction. One insipid cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “ (and the third time it was used in a commercial, too) and the boomers spit with rage that a bank should appropriate an anthem from their youth — as though it’s the bank’s fault instead of Bob’s.


Meanwhile, every time folks born after 1960 turn around, another eight bars of their teen-years soundtrack is shifting product. There are a couple of reasons why that doesn’t bother us. By the time we were paying any attention to the music on the radio, the starry-eyed idealism of the fabulous ’60s had already curdled.


Still, you’d expect more boomer boo-hooing over the current Nortel Networks branding campaign, which uses The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Maybe they did all their complaining when Nike used “Revolution” back in the ’80s and can’t whomp up sufficient fury a second time.


But that’s the second part of why this bugs the boomers, but doesn’t faze the folks in their wake (generally not much bothers us — except boomers, of course). Check the lyrics of “Come Together”: “Here come old flattop/He come grooving up slowly/He got joo-joo eyeball/He one holy roller/He got hair down to his knee/Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.” For us, nonsense lyrics are the norm. Passionate declarations of social intentions seem odd. “Joo-joo eyeball” doesn’t.


Heed the call of a rock star and change the world? Not likely, when one of the biggest hits as the ’70s started was “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” by The New Seekers. By the time it was on the radio, we were already sick of it as a Coca-Cola TV commercial.


Eaton’s recently resurrected “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies. When that tune was originally a hit in 1969, we already knew The Archies were comic-book characters, and the song was the work of anonymous studio musicians. Given that background knowledge, it’s tough to muster much outrage at some other choice commercial retreads: Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” is being used to sell cars, “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps promised that “things are gonna get easier” for people who ship using Purolator, and CSN&Y’s “Our House” helped Sears flog appliances about a decade ago. It’s all product.


While supplies are limited, there are still numerous numbers nobody’s capitalized on. Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” suggests sunscreen, vacations, insect repellent–hundreds of possible applications, none of them realized. “Vehicle” by The Ides of March could roll countless sport-utility vehicles off dealers’ lots and into driveways. Why hasn’t Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or Slimfast gobbled up the rights to The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”? Oldsmobile’s using Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride,” Canadian Tire has the B.T. Express with “Do It ’Til You’re Satisfied,” and Mazda’s been spinning Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.”


Why has no cruise line snagged The Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat”? John Lennon and Elton John’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” — sleeping pills, bedding, laxatives. Steely Dan had a hit that year with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Telco, long-distance carrier; it’s a no-brainer.


The United States Postal Service has turned Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” into its theme. Why doesn’t Canada Post use, say, The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter 23”? Though in the case of Canada Post, “Slow Ride” by Foghat might be a better choice.


Of course, being a shallow post-boomer, I know that if anybody takes up any of these suggestions, I’m due a hefty “music consultancy” fee. Send that check to Marketing, c/o “The Space Cowboy” (some call me the Gangster of Love...).