Music In Advertising: Volkswagen

January 03, 2012

When I am not observing, creating and living marketing, I enjoy listening to music. I have an extensive collection of vinyl, still own all my cassette tapes and CDs, and have more than 24,000 mp3s on my computer. There is about a 99.9 percent chance that I am listening to music whenever I am at my computer. More and more, I find myself discovering music through advertising.

Where at one point, it might be considered selling out, today it can be an effective means to find an audience. Given the decreasing importance of radio and the lack of outlets like MTV, and musicians are finding other means to sell their art. Throw in a tool like Shazaam, and you can easily identify ads in songs.

While Apple didn't invent putting pop songs in commercials, they probably had more to do with realizing its potential than anyone else. Starting with its silhouette iPod ads, Apple has mixed marketing and pop music to great effect--for the both parties.

Another industry that takes advantage of pop music is the car industry. It makes sense since attitude, emotion and perception have a lot to do with why we buy one car over another. After all, if the decision were purely based on functional requirements, everyone would drive the cheapest car available. Instead, cars are very much a symbol of our status and who were are. Driving a Prius tells everyone one thing--"I am environmentally conscious." Whereas, cruising around in a Hummer or a Land Rover says something entirely different.

For such an emotion-laden decision, why not use music to help queue the desired emotions? For me, one of the first commercials I remember that effectively combined a pop song and an ad was Volkswagen and the Golf commercial that was part of the "Drivers Wanted" campaign developed by Arnold Worldwide.

The song is fun and light. It was also unique and not well known in the U.S. prior to being used in the ad, a bonus for the band. It also nicely conforms to VW's long-held brand image of unpretentious, quality automobiles. The "Sunday Afternoon" ad premiered during the Ellen episode where she came out as a lesbian, which caused some ambiguity regarding the relationship of the two men in the ad. This again fits VW's image--while other advertisers ran from the controversy, VW totally embraced it.

Of course, part of the "Drivers Wanted" campaign was the idea that life is meant to be lived. VW people search out happiness even if it means separating from the crowd. That is the theme of the "Pink Moon" commercial, which Not surprisingly, features the Nick Drake song, "Pink Moon."

This commercial for the Cabrio has a much different feel to it than the "Sunday Afternoon" commercial, but still encapsulates the VW brand identity. According to Steve Wilhite, former marketing chief at VW, the commercial "perfectly captured the values and attitude of the brand, sold the entire brand through a single car, and brilliantly connected with people from all walks of life. It is timeless (Kiley, 2010)." Nick Drake fans' objections notwithstanding, this is a pleasant commercial that did bring him to the attention of an entirely new generation.

What makes both of those commercials memorable is that they tell a story--without even saying a word. Moreover, they use music that perfectly fits the story being told. This is also the case in the VW VR6 ad, "Big Day."

All three of those ads fit the iconoclastic, stand out from the crowd image that VW cultivated in the 50s when DDB was telling us to "Think Small." And in each case, the music helps tell the story, rather than just trying to shamelessly piggyback on the popularity of a musician. It reshapes one piece of art into another piece of art.

The final ad couldn't be more different than the first three ads, but is fantastic nonetheless. Where the first three used the music to tell the story, this one uses the music as the punchline. And in this case, it uses humor to make its point. It also helps if you accidentally cast someone who ends up being on one of the greatest television shows of all time.


Using popular music in a commercial is a tightrope. When you pull it off, you help make your product and ad more salient. However, doing it poorly can not only create negative attitude toward the commercial, but also recreate that negative impression every time the person hears the song elsewhere.

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Jeff Francis is a marketing geek who would never refer to himself as a guru. He is that weird sort who enjoys watching commercials and analyzing communication strategies. He is also available for hire and would love to hear from you. So, head on over to the contact page and get in touch.


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