Corporate rock rules

There’s a long tradition of using rebel music in ads. But its backfire potential is huge.

Marketing Magazine, November 11, 1997   

Bob Dylan’s fans are upset. They haven’t been this exercised since they booed the former Robert Zimmerman off the stage at Newport in 1965 because he had the gall to show up with an electric guitar. But this time, they’re not mad at Bob. They’re furious at the Bank of Montreal for launching its mbanx campaign with a version of Bob’s forgotten chestnut, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The campaign’s been greeted with a wheezy howl of betrayal from the refugees of the Love Generation, as if to prove that a position in middle management is not at odds with purity, grooviness and freaky naiveté.


Here’s a news flash, Maynard G. Krebs: Music is product. The crowning of Bob Dylan as “voice of a generation” didn’t come from the streets, folk-music scholars or campus radicals. It came from the marketing folks at Columbia Records. Any artist has to sign off on having his or her music used for any purpose. The Beastie Boys wanted to use a line from Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as a sample on their 1992 album, Check Your Head. They had to get Bob’s permission. Bob said sure. Bob already okayed “Times” for a commercial for a U.S. accounting firm three years ago, after reacquiring the rights in 1991. Pop music’s distributors see it as product. Despite public claims to the contrary, some practitioners do, too.


Microsoft wanted to launch Windows 95 with an R.E.M. tune, “The End of the World As We Know It.” Michael Stipe said no; Microsoft had to settle for the Stones’, “Start Me Up.” True to their generational imperative, Mick and Keith tripped over themselves rushing to sell out as fast as possible...because they’re not rich enough, see? Bob gets a little more mileage out of one of his earlier, lesser efforts and it’s a big problem. How come nobody popped a rivet when Nike resurrected The Beatles’ “Revolution” 10 years ago as a jingle in a commercial for tennis shoes?


It’s just one of the many baffling conundrums that lurk at the nexus where music — even self-righteous, quaint folk songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’” — meets selling.


But the mbanx spot works. And it answers the question of what the Bank of Montreal was planning to do to top its forlorn “urban Okies” campaign; you know, the Walker Evans/Dorothea Lange-style shots of mopey, downsized Joads holding up placards wondering about their futures. This new spot is a logical progression. Now we’ve got a song by Dylan, who always made it clear he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, folksong laureate of the Great Depression, when he grew up. It’s consistent, with a nice “new depression” continuity to it. Others have done worse.


Rock’n’roll’s backfire potential as an element of marketing was put into razor-sharp focus with the last of those summertime “big-famous-band-in-a-dinky-club” Molson promotions. Somehow, rumors led fans in Toronto to think they were going to see Pearl Jam in late August. Instead, they got the “fat and forty” Sex Pistols and were greatly unamused. The band cut short its set after a lot of peeved heckling.


It’s no worse a strategy than other Molson campaigns, like the one that tries to make your beer brand a matter of national identity (“I am . . .” drunk? DWI? full of wicked gas? using a fake ID? “...Canadian.” Huh?), or personal integrity (“Ex says it all.” Yeah — unfortunately what it says is, “I’m dumb, lazy, mean, drunk and, perversely enough, proud of that”). They do get points for employing Toronto band Raggadeath’s “One Life” in their “I Am Snowboarding” spot.


Others have shown that using rock’n’roll to sell your product can work well. Weiden & Kennedy’s work for Nike is smart about music and music people. Its “Revolution” spot featuring John McEnroe’s tennis tantrums was eye- and ear-catching and groundbreaking. Similarly, employing Red Hot Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea to sell tennis shoes also flew: the bouncy urgency of the Peps’ punk-funk gumbo lined up nicely with the amped-up, relentless athleticism the target demo liked to believe typified its tennis playing. This year, they’re doing it again with a cover of Iggy Pop’s incendiary “Search & Destroy.” Matching a high-speed scorched-earth anthem to scenes of athletic brutality works. Toyota’s RAV4 spots using Todd Rundgren’s “Bang The Drum All Day” to equate abandonment of worldly cares with driving Japanese sport-utes gets it message across effectively.


Conversely, Toyota’s use of Van Morrison’s “Bright Side of the Road” to push Camrys doesn’t work – too literal. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, guys, but the song is a metaphor; Van wasn’t thinking about traffic when he wrote it.


There are a couple of constants at work in this seemingly eclectic round-up. The spots that don’t work use rock’n’roll as a single lumpy source-heap for rebel cachet and hipster credentials. That approach hasn’t made sense for about 30 years, if it ever did. The spots that fly find a song that communicates the central message, regardless of whether it’s Dvorak, Danzig or Dylan. I know it’s only rock’n’roll. But it’s product.