By Published on .

IN THE WAKE OF MICROSOFT'S MULTIMILLION-dollar licensing last year of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," big-money music deals by major corporations have become front-page news. But the prevalence of hit songs

in television advertising reflects a lot more than the irresistible value of "Wild Thing" and other marketing anthems. It also underscores the fact that only a fraction of the music written for commercials today is created by people who write hit songs themselves.

While a growing number of Hollywood's top-tier directors are becoming visible players in the advertising community and enriching its output in the process, well-known songwriters and composers remain, ironically, and with few exceptions, on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom among creatives-for some time, it seems-is that the work product of music production companies, particularly the work we create to be sung, is all too often derivative, hackneyed and nowhere near the cutting edge.

It's no wonder, then, that so many agencies, in their quest for truly fresh and original music, find themselves either looking to yesterday's hits or hiring a music house to borrow from one of today's.

Nowhere was the trend more noticeable than during this year's NCAA basketball tournament on CBS, where one could hear, as if from a vintage jukebox, The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" (1969) for Fidelity Investments; Janis Joplin's "Mercedes-Benz" (1969) for, of course, Mercedes-Benz; KC and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way I Like It" (1978) and The Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" (1969) for Burger King; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By" (1968) for Coke; Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" (1953) for Pepsi; a cover of the Stones' "Wild Horses" (1971) for Budweiser; and, as ever, Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" (1986), his longtime signature for Chevy trucks.

A momentary zap to Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" (1967) for Clairol, The Lovin' Spoonful's "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind" (1966) for Denny's, or my current favorite, a knockoff of James Brown's "I Feel Good" (1965) for Senekot laxative, plus the requisite impersonations of Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond and Rickie Lee Jones, and it was easy to see how, in today's music for advertising, that everything old is new, and everything new is, well, old.

How did this happen? The underlying causes are complex, but it's clear that they speak volumes about the way nearly all of us, from agencies to the public, have come to think about the role of original music that's sung in commercials. To the musician, the picture's not very flattering.

A little more than a year ago, when I was still wearing two hats as both a writer and composer at Messner, I attended a creative meeting to map out an MCI campaign to be sung throughout and called "AT&T Blues." Though at the outset we may have debated the relative merits of, say, celebrities vs. unknowns, on one issue we were in complete agreement: these spots would sound "like real songs, not like jingles."

For all my enthusiasm about the project, it was striking for me to realize just how dirty the word jingle had become in our profession-to producers, copywriters, art directors and creative directors alike. And worst of all, to the composers ourselves, for whom jingles are a not so secret pact with the devil-a lucrative but mortifying fact of life.

o many of us, and, for that matter, to many of the audiences we want to attract, "jingle" says corny, tired, assembly line, Jolly Green Giant, Ed Sullivan and so forth. Not exactly the images we want to bring to our work in 1996.

So what is the difference, then, between a jingle and what we called a real song? Actually, there are lots of 'em. For one thing, ad songs are essentially about emotions, while jingles are generally about products and end benefits.

Songs seem to connect by asso-ciation, distinctiveness and inference; jingles by formula, parody and repetition.

Songs virtually never mention the name of a product except by rare coincidence ("Mercedes-Benz"), puns or rewritten lyrics (e.g., the current "Nacho Man," from the Village People's 1978 hit "Macho Man.") Jingles, by contrast, almost always mention the product or end benefit-or both.

Hit songs often have lyrics that are as memorable as the melodies that carry them. I wouldn't be the first copywriter to concede that a good writer isn't always a great lyricist, but the task isn't made any easier when those lyrics have to be about copy points instead of emotions.

Finally, classic songs appeal nostalgically and subliminally-which may be their greatest strength. Jingles, on the other hand, are overt and emphatic-which may be their greatest weakness. Granted, during the glory days of the jingle, the '50s and '60s, those lyrics and arrangements were fresh and original-for the '50s and '60s. But just like the Broadway musical, whose every new score sounds like a poor retread of something heard long ago, commercial music seems to have been echoing the spirit, if not the sound, of its archetypes-for more than 30 years. Perhaps that's why the rock we hear in advertising often sounds like a caricature of the real thing, with, as one unforgiving Messner creative put it, "all the subtlety of a Super Bowl halftime show."

This isn't to say there's no first-rate original music in commercials-of course there is. But what audiences find most appealing in classic songs is inherently absent from the jingles we give them. And what they find most objectionable in jingles is precisely what they don't associate with classic rock 'n' roll: predictability.

As consumers have grown more accustomed to hearing their favorite songs in spots, it's only logical that they would come to expect a higher standard among all kinds of music in commercials. As a result, the old-school jingle simply sounds that much more jarringly repetitive, anachronistic and grating to the ear.

But instead of responding to that sophistication by taking the jingle to the modern age, we simply give them more licensed music and a few more jingles that aren't up to the aesthetic of the market. If those audiences seem to be responding to music that's more subtle and emotional, and less branded, maybe we don't always need a 30-year-old hit to provide them with the attributes they prefer. Maybe we simply need a few great songwriters.

ne great songwriter who's made a significant mark in commercials is Randy Newman. But how many consumers really know that Newman's "I Love to See You Smile" was written and recorded not as a toothpaste jingle but as a song for one of his albums years ago? Or that his "I Love L.A." for the '84 Olympics wasn't a Nike original but, likewise, an album cut? Do the songs, which had minimal public recognition before their second lives in advertising, boast any more equity or integrity as marketing devices simply because they came from a record? I doubt it. In fact, "I Love to See You Smile" and "I Love L.A." are jingles of the new school-with nearly all the assets of songs and none of the liabilities of old-school jingles. But let's face it: jingles they are. Only because they were done by someone like Randy Newman can we pretend they're not.

By the same token, another new-school jingle, Bob Seger's "Like a Rock," is now so deeply embedded in the public psyche that most viewers probably think of it as a jingle-whether or not they recognize it as having been recorded by Seger in the first place. Though his celebrity as a performer is obviously an attraction to those who can identify him, the track's assets as a song are hardly different from those of Newman's work: restraint, no explicit branding and the willingness to let the audience draw its own inferences about the product the song promotes.

In 1992, "Bobby's Girl," Gary Klein's seminal '60s hit recorded by Marcie Blaine, had its refrain, "You're not a kid anymore," reincarnated as both the headline and music track for a niche campaign by Lee jeans and Fallon McElligott. Though the campaign was directed at any guy who had trouble fitting into old jeans, it occurred to me then that only those 40 and over-or maybe with a brother or sister that old-would know that the line and jingle were lifted from a song that hit the Billboard charts in 1962. To those old enough to remember, it's a classic. But to everyone else, it's just a jingle.

Thus, as boomers continue to age and the songs of their generation inevitably lose their resonance with younger, more desirable consumer audiences, those songs are destined to become the province of commercials whose targets are, by definition, older.

This point is touchingly illustrated in Coke's current "You're All I Need" spot. In it, a middle-aged father listens wistfully to the seemingly timeless Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell ballad, as his teenage son defiantly drowns out the song with ear-splitting power chords. Musically, the two generations are at war.

Of course, the incorrigible rock 'n' roll kid is nothing new in commercials, but what's different about this commercial is that the father presumably used to be that kid, and through Marvin and Tammi he's trying to hold on to whatever's left of his dreams. As we watch the son's obliviousness to Marvin-once our own symbol of brash sexuality, drugs, rebelliousness and agelessness-we realize that we, too, can't pretend forever. It's a crushing moment.

It's also, unexpectedly, an instructive one. Because it tells us that the future-and the music of the future-belongs not to the father but to the son. To many of this month's college graduates, most of them born in 1974, the Beatles and Motown are little more than what your parents played on the boombox while trying to keep you in the bathtub. The truth is that we're using the classics to influence a generation that increasingly doesn't know what it's listening to, and for whom this music has correspondingly diminished impact. But no matter how well one may remember them, the classics have been so desirable and effective in advertising not simply because they touch our emotions but because, as classics, they embody so much craft.

If Aretha, Marvin and the Stones are the standards that commercial audiences have become accustomed to, this doesn't mean we ought to give up on new songs and new songwriters, as it seems many of us have done. But it does mean those of us in music are obliged to create new work that's up to our audience's-and our own-expectations. No one can do this like today's great songwriters. Because, in the end, the problem isn't the jingle as much as it is the way we've come to define it. Or, more specifically, confine it.

it songwriters are our best hope to redefine it. Some skeptics caution that major pop composers wouldn't want to sully their reputations by working in commercials. But didn't we hear the same concerns about directors only a few years ago? Others worry that the cost of a new song from platinum-selling or Grammy-caliber songwriters would be stratospheric. But judging from my own experiences with several of them, nothing could be further from the truth. As for stratospheric deals, it seems to me that $6 million to $12 million for "Start Me Up" isn't exactly a bargain either.

In so many ways, commercials have finally become every bit as well-crafted as their feature-length counterparts. That's happened, in large part, because the industry has opened itself up to include the very best talent in every discipline involved in the making of a spot, with one stubborn exception-music. Once welcomed into the tent along with everyone else, top songwriters of this generation, whose work appeals to millions, will prove to be a powerful creative force for advertisers who seek to appeal to millions more. u

Rick Lyon, a former copywriter and composer at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, wrote the jingle "It Just Doesn't Ring True" for MCI. He is CD at New York's Rick Lyon Music, whose talent roster includes Top 10 and Grammy-

Most Popular
In this article: