Music in Advertising: The Kinks

January 10, 2012

A well placed song can keep a commercial salient for an audience--even if it isn't particularly relevant to them. The perfect situation is a song that helps a company sell a product and also (re)introduces a band's music to an audience. This has been the afterlife for The Kinks for several years now. So many of their songs fit seamlessly into commercials for products as diverse as automobiles, department stores, and technology products. In exchange for the sales help, their music finds a home with a new audience. It is a perfect relationship for everyone, including the audience, when it goes well.

The Kinks have several ads out there, including one of the freakiest ads of 2011. While some companies choose the hit singles ("Sunny Afternoon," "All Day and All of the Night," and "You Really Got Me" covered by Van Halen), some of the best ads rely on deep cuts.

Maybe it is the respect that you subconsciously give someone for finding good unknown tracks. Or, maybe it is just appreciation that they aren't just trying to piggyback someone else's success. Either way, I love a commercial that features a solid deep track. Anyone can pull a top single and slap it in the background and act hip. It takes thought and care to find the perfect song in the bargain bin. Not surprisingly, Volkswagen is one of those companies.

Like we discussed last week, VW helped put Nick Drake back on iPods with its "Pink Moon" commercials. This year, as part of the Das Auto campaign, ad agency DDB is helping unearth lost The Kinks singles, as well as hoping to sell a Cabriolet or two. The song "Days" was largely a failure. It charted in the UK, but didn't do anything in the U.S. In this UK ad, VW ties the sentimental message of the song with our childhood cars. Even though the song's meaning and tone is slightly incongruous with the goal of the ad, it still works pretty well on the ethos level.

Moving to the slightly less obscure, IBM launched a relatively vanilla campaign in the early 2000s touting the personalization of its products. It chose "Sunny Afternoon" B-side "I Am Not Like Everybody Else." Here is an instance where the commercial and the song don't really jibe for my taste. Mainly, I don't think the visuals work that well. Are the people in the ad IBM people or are they potential customers frustrated by being boxed in? In the end, the message gets across, but I don't know that this ad really sticks with you. It seems to rely too heavily on the song, rather than having the song be a cog in the machine. It lacks any type of cleverness or originality.

Combine an iconic brand like Converse and a obscure song from a widely-panned album and what do you get? A 2007 commercial for Target featuring the Converse's One Star merchandise. Like the IBM attempt, this commercial also walks that fine line of letting the song do too much of the heavy lifting. However, it does work thanks to Converse's strong brand identity, which is, of course, tied to the star. Plus, the youthfulness of the brand and the industry the company is in, allows them to get away with preening with rock stars. Additionally, the upbeat, Bowie-esque tune is sufficiently hip without trying too hard. The song, "Everybody's a Star (Starmaker)," comes off of Soap Opera, that tells the story of a musician who changes places with an ordinary man to better understand life. It is like "Trading Places" without all that boring stock market futures crap.

As I mentioned earlier, there is one commercial that just creeps the hell out of people. Yet, it seems to have all the makings of a good commercial. Cool visual that makes people say, "How did they do that?" Check! Catchy, sufficiently obscure song that fits the mood and message of the commercialy? Check! Clean narrative that clearly expresses point of the commercial? Check! Images that don't give people nightmares? FAIL!

This ad has so many things working right. It is a well made ad on so many levels, except one: When I see the commercial I immediately change the channel because the "people person" freaks me out. I didn't even know it was a Prius commercial until I started writing this up. This is kind of like the Snickers Halloween commercial--it took several viewings before I realized what was going on and what it was for. That is never a good sign for an ad.

On the other hand, this is a good song that I wasn't all that familiar with before this commercial. Obscured by "Lola" and "Apeman" on the Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One album, this song has everything to be a song on playlists everywhere. Unfortunately, being used with this frightening people person means most people won't hang around long enough to hear it in the background.

Finally, when I think of commercials and The Kinks, I immediately recall the 2004 "Picturebook" campaign from HP. It seems funny to think about a time where a dedicated digital camera would be of interest to people, let alone wanting to print out our pictures. But before Facebook and Flickr and all the other digital scrapbooks took off, people really wanted "hard copies" of their lives. And this commercial appeals to that sentiment, working for a couple of reasons.

First, the concept is fantastic. The trick of playing with the frames and capturing pictures is very appealing. It also expresses exactly the selling point HP wants you to take away: This thing is super quick and easy to use. Ad observers described it as a stop-and-watch ad and viewers agreed it was one of the best ads of the year. What more could a company want from an ad?

Secondly, the music is perfect. The song itself fits the product. It is happy and upbeat, while the lyrics directly relate to the product. How perfect is this union? To this day, I think of these HP ads whenever I hear "Picture Book." And I mean that in the best way possible. It is a happy association. What is even better, this Kinks song was rather unknown and wasn't even a single off of 1968's The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society before HP put it front and center.

In this case, HP does everything that Toyota did, minus the freakish monster to ruin the good feelings. It is a perfect ad, or as perfect as an ad can be. It communicates without being overbearing. It attracts without being outrageous. And it sticks with you without being annoying. Well done.

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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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