By Published on .

How is it that an old song can be used again and again in spots and never become, well, old news? I've wondered about this more than a few times, as licensed classics continue to dominate the commercials music landscape, and as the same hit is featured repeatedly-even simultaneously-in an array of high-profile national campaigns. Like it or not, one thing seems clear: When a great song is part of the creative equation, audiences can't get enough of it.

Remember when "Don't Fence Me In" accompanied all those spots in MCI's "Gramercy Press" saga? That didn't prevent Mercedes-Benz from using the same tune in its own widely praised campaign two years later. Meanwhile, "Night and Day" was reborn, and reborn again, for Air France, Audi, Ford and Maxwell House, as was "Stand By Me" for Buick, after years for Citibank. Dragnet's four-note signature was licensed by Nissan, despite its indelible association with Tums. "Celebration" helped sell Denny's, Bally's and Frito-Lay. And then, of course, there's the phenomenal "Wild Thing"-with commercials credits simply too numerous to list-making it, just possibly, more ubiquitous, on a continuous basis, than any other song in the history of rock.

What "Wild Thing" and company tell us is that classic songs gain, rather than lose, creative impact with multiple uses; and that they do so not only via network commercials but also via local ones and movie and TV soundtracks, all of which reinforce one another (and further enhance any future uses of the song) in a seemingly endless cycle. For the controllers of those rights, that means big business. For creatives, it means a clean slate every time out.

As those born after 1970 make up a larger share of the 18-49 audience, it's increasingly likely they'll encounter these classics not on records but in commercials. So spots, more than any other medium nowadays, are continually making old hits into new ones for the uninitiated, and continually reviving them for everyone else. Whatever their generation, viewers are plainly willing to embrace the hit they happen to be experiencing at a given moment, no matter how many other commercials may have featured it in the past.

Pop music is, after all, America's most durable icon, and, in a certain sense, a song like "Wild Thing" belongs to all of us. Maybe that's why audiences not only accept but enjoy its repeated use in spots, just as they've enjoyed similarly varied uses of visual icons in advertising over the years. If no single execution has an exclusive claim to, say, the Statue of Liberty or the Mona Lisa, how can one expect anything else of "Wild Thing"?

Paradoxically, our reverence for music is also why certain audiences are somewhat less forgiving when advertisers choose to license those rare songs that are both pop icons and cultural ones. The music of the Beatles, for example, has created something of a firestorm among true believers on the few occasions when it has appeared in commercials. But imagine how much more heated the backlash might have been if it were the sacred "I Want to Hold Your Hand" licensed from the Beatles catalog instead of "Revolution," or "Satisfaction" from the Rolling Stones instead of "Start Me Up." Soon enough, we may find out.

Big names aside, the truth is that a song doesn't have to be an icon at all to become a hit in spots. In fact, a long-running campaign can make virtually any piece of music feel like a classic, including many that weren't exactly classics to begin with. This explains how songs like Jaguar's "At Last" or Burger King's and Miller's "I Put a Spell on You" are now probably better known to the general public than any of 1997's Top 10 singles. Or how a little-known aria can in one NFL season become a permanent fixture in the American psyche. If they weren't hits before their reincarnation in advertising, they certainly are now.

Finally, it's no secret that licensed music grants instant access to the audience's subconscious, but relicensed music enables creatives and filmmakers to capitalize on that access in novel and increasingly clever ways. It lets a brand like Buick, for example, communicate trust and reliability when its "Stand By Me" had just done likewise for Citibank. Or it lets McDonald's promote its folksiness with Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend In Me," only months after the same song and performance had gained fame in the immensely popular family hit Toy Story. Like a race car drafting in the wake of another, a new spot featuring a previously licensed song is boosted by its predecessors.

Most Popular
In this article: