In commercials for Major League Baseball, the Gap, Coke and Sears Auto Centers, we see how dramatically the rules have changed when big-name musicians are in the mix, and how creatives and superstars are cooperating as never before to further their own and each other's interests.
For all the kudos that greeted the MLB "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" campaign from Lowe & Partners/SMS (and the creative team of Alan Chalfin and Scott Grayson), what was just as remarkable was that a 90-year-old song somehow engendered so many strikingly new ones. That included a blazing original by the Goo Goo Dolls, new music and lyrics by both Mary Chapin Carpenter and LL Cool J, and scenarios that arose out of the artists' lives and team loyalties.
The Gap's "Easy" campaign puts its hitmakers literally at the core of the creative team -- by applying the brand's "personal style" credo to the making of the commercials. "The first 25 seconds are all yours," said Gap CD Lisa Prisco to the likes of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Ray J, Junior Brown and, again, LL Cool J. Each of them responded with sensational musicianship and creative smarts.
The ubiquitous LL Cool J is also, amazingly, the centerpiece of a touching and widely praised spot from Coke and Rush Media. But LL's versatility aside, the commercial pushes the notion of music superstars in advertising to a uniquely personal level, where the musician's family, rather than his work, forms the nucleus of the commercial. "The creative parameters were based on LL's real-life relationship with his daughter," Rush Media's Anne Simmons says. "The two of them simply filled in the blanks."
Finally, there's O&M/Chicago's "Rolling" campaign for Sears Auto Centers (from the team of Andy Madorsky and Jeff Long), featuring Shawn Colvin, B. B. King and Johnny Cash. No, the performers didn't write it (Madorsky, Brad Colerick, Larry Klein and Rob Laufer did), but this is still commercial music that sounds like pop music -- without a single "Sears," "auto" or "car" in the lyrics. I'll drink to that. And so, presumably, would the artists who sang them.
Diverse though these examples may be, they're united by a single feature: instead of asking the musician to celebrate the brand, each commercial, in effect, celebrates the musician. What many of the spots also symbolize is a new acceptance of modern practicalities -- capitalizing on the star power of big-name recording artists also means giving them at least some of the creative power they're accustomed to. Not so much because they demand it, but because anything less defeats the purpose of their being here in the first place. "When someone is as brilliant as these guys," Gap senior VP-marketing Michael McCadden says, "why would we tell them what to do?"
Or, as Lowe's Grayson puts it, "Am I really going to ask LL Cool J, a die-hard baseball fan, to change his lyric because he uses a term like 'home base'? I don't think so."
McCadden and Grayson aren't alone, and for good reason. Unlike, say, actors, who almost never write their own lines, music icons are accustomed to speaking for themselves -- in song, at least -- and to creating the words and music that earn them millions and shape their public images. It's image, after all, that's the anchor of these spots, which succeed not only because image is uncompromised but because it's enhanced.
Of course, there are plenty of pop stars who still regard commercials as a Faustian bargain at best; and there are plenty of creatives who are naturally reluctant to hand over a part of the job that's always been theirs alone. But there are more and more on both sides who seem to be embracing new partnerships like these, and who are simultaneously transforming the way spots with music are made. If these commercials tell us anything about music and advertising, it's that believing in the integrity of one doesn't mean sacrificing the integrity of the other.