Until last week, I was under the impression that ‘Rockin’ Robin’ – a song made famous by The Jackson 5 – was actually called ‘Rocky Robin’. I was corrected on this by my mum, a cultural low point that I’d thank you never to mention again. I do, however, have an excuse for labouring under this misapprehension for such a long time – because when I first heard this song, it was in an advert for a Rocky chocolate bar. I tell you this story not as an act of self-flagellation, but because it’s a useful (yet humiliating) example of the extent to which ad music used to seep into our subconscious, and help shape our cultural education.
This came in many forms: the savvy music supervisor at an advertising firm – having taken just the right amount of narcotics – managing to perfectly match a classic track to a new product. An upcoming act being tasked with covering an old standard, usually on an acoustic guitar, so that an animated penguin selling a wireless Bluetooth speaker for Christmas will seem more cute. Or, the holy grail for new acts, one of their original songs being matched with the year’s big product launch – both a curse and a blessing for the follow-up single, especially if you’re Babylon Zoo.
There were the established acts – ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’ by Sparks propelling a Rover 200; Louis Armstrong’s ‘All the Time in the World’ soundtracking rising bubbles of Irish stout; ‘All Right Now’ by dad-rock hair balls Free, helping to mend some torn chewing gum; or Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ providing the accompaniment to a man taking off his jeans in a launderette, or being sung by some sentient raisins.
While we’re on a certain make of jeans, let’s not forget the new lease of life given to ‘Should I Stay or Should I go?’, ‘Stand By Me’, and ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’. These are all songs any music fan would have happened upon eventually, especially in the age of streaming, but these adverts were literally our shop windows, pushing the tracks and acts on to us long before we would have discovered them for ourselves. A box of raisins and some 501’s helped Marvin Gaye back to number one. Who would have thunk it?
Then there was the new music. Levi’s had a legendary run in the 90s – at one point, the demand was so great for a song by a made-up band, that Stiltskin had to be thrown together so they could perform the number one single ‘Inside’ on Top of the Pops. If I mentioned Mr Oizo to you, you might shrug, but ‘Flat Eric’? Ah yes – that song. And then of course there’s the aforementioned Babylon Zoo, a sped-up version of ‘Spaceman’ capturing everyone’s imagination until it merged into the non-sped up version, at which point everyone slowly backed away. Not forgetting Feist, Santigold, The Dandy Warhols, Ellie Goulding, the Go Compare Guy… hold on, I went too far.
But what’s the equivalent these days? Certainly nothing on linear TV – I tried prime time commercials this week in order to draw some sort of comparison… it’s as much as they can do to get the ‘Go Compare’ guy to actually put his suit on. Is then the opportunity lost to introduce new music to an entire generation? Of course not – much like cockroaches, advertising executives adapt to survive – you will find their sweaty fingerprints all over TikTok, Snapchat, those annoying bits between Insta stories, and those really annoying bits on YouTube. Sometimes, the music is the brand – Levi’s, building on its musical heritage, now pumps money into grassroots music. ‘Dr Martens Presents’ presents… music? With some useful brand recognition to boot… no, sorry.
The best trick is making the adverts themselves must-see TV. We have iterations of this on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, one of the cultural and viral events of the year – of the year, mind – is still the John Lewis Christmas advert – the kind of marker that sees really annoying people – the ones who wear Christmas ties and/or earrings in late November – saying ‘now it really feels like Christmas! ROFLcryinglaughingface!!!’. It has both broken new artists, and shone the spotlights on old songs… the usual thinking being ‘How can we take this song from the 70s and make it seem as if Radio 2 designed it?’. Then, in the US, there’s Super Bowl Sunday – the blockbuster ads making headlines over the half-time show and, y’know, the sport, with celebrities pushing light beer, probably soundtracked by U2 or Lenny Kravitz.
By hook or by crooks, music and advertising will go hand in hand for a long time yet, galloping through a sun dappled glade, holding their carbonated sugary drinks aloft (after the watershed, obviously), singing ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to sit by my laptop pressing refresh, until I find out what cute fluffy animal is being soundtracked by James Bay’s mournful cover of Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ for this year’s John Lewis ad.
God I hope I’m joking.