50 ads where music made the difference – and why agencies should think of music first, not last

Music can make an average ad great. So why, Robin Hicks asks, is music the last thing a creative thinks about when writing an ad?

My favourite TV ad of the year so far is the Let Yourself Go spot for Kangaroo Island.

When it didn’t win Mumbrella’s Ad of the Month for March (it came third) I felt aggrieved for the agency that made it. But less so a week later when it emerged that the agency had paid celebrities to tweet nice things about its work.

Let Yourself Go is a stunning spot with lots of pretty images. But it would probably have had a similar effect on me if I’d watched a blank screen for 60 seconds.

John Baker of Adelaide ad agency KWP!, which made the ad, told me that the music (Rise by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder) “is 50% of the communication”. For me, more like 90%. If the agency hadn’t thrown out the idea to use the well-worn Feeling Good by Nina Simone, the ad would barely have registered. Tourism ad wallpaper.

It seems easier to block out images. Blink and they’re gone. But music lingers and re-emerges like a Trojan horse. Even if the music is terrible. I found myself humming Dan Hartman’s Instant Replay having just seen the Coles ad the other day.

The most searched for ad on Google in Australia last year had music to thank for its popularity. ‘Strongbow ad’ was the most popular ad-related search in 2011 – because the Summer Blossom spot, a nonsensical messy affair in which beautiful young things frollick in a blizzard of fluffy stuff, featured the track Young Blood by Kiwi rock band The Naked and Famous.

I find the music whiny and irritating. Mind you, the sixth most Googled term was ‘Coles ad’.

The South Australian Tourism Board reported a spike in searches in the days after Let Yourself Go launched, which probably had as much to do with Eddie Vedder as it does people now wanting to know more about Kangaroo Island. No mention of the music from Matt Moran though. He would probably have made more than $750 if he’d done so.

Music has a habit of making ads endurable, even enjoyable (my hit list is below). So it’s odd that music is usually the last thing a creative team thinks about when making an ad.

Guy Sebastian

Another option for the Kangaroo Island soundtrack was South Australian artist Guy Sebastian. But a rights issue killed that idea. As it is, the distribution of the ad is restricted (not allowed to be shown outside of Australia, so the ad is geo-fenced on SATC’s website) because of the deal with Vedder’s record company. This made the process of writing the story about the launch of the ad slower, as there was no embed code. And it will probably mean fewer foreign visitors to Kangaroo Island.

Would things would have been simpler if the music had been locked down earlier on in the creative process?

In some markets, agencies have inhouse music specialists. Content divisions set up with the express intent of making brands famous through music. Why isn’t this happening in Australia?

An old theory is that ad agencies just aren’t made for music, and don’t fully appreciate its value. The functional unit of an ad agency, which dates back to the days when ad agencies were print specialists, is a team of two people. A copywriter, who writes the words. An art director, who makes the images. There’s no role for a sound specialist. Music is shipped in at the last minute, when the budget is all but bust. No wonder ad agencies are accused of being, in the literal sense, image obsessed.

Here’s a fairly typical scenario. A client is presented with a rough cut of the ad. The client falls in love with it, particularly the music the director has chosen. The agency goes off to find the music, only to discover that it’s hideously expensive. They then have to find a cheaper alternative or a soundalike when time and money have run out.

Matters are not made easier by music companies, who not only have a reputation for being too pricey, but are notoriously precious about ‘protecting’ their artists from being ‘exploited’ by advertisers. I was told by a music publisher yesterday, “Not even a struggling artist would want their music on a McDonald’s commercial.”

A titanic clash of ego makes things even more, um, interesting.

Is it any wonder there few great examples of music and images working together in perfect sync. Like Let Yourself Go or, my personal favourite, Sony Bravia ‘Balls’.

When ‘Balls’ was released in 2005, I was struck by what one of the makers of the ad, Fallon London ECD Andy McLeod, admitted – that the ad didn’t really have an idea. It was all about the execution. Just a beautiful film with beautiful music, which shifted some TVs and helped indie folk singer José González shift some copies of his debut album Veneer, which went platinum.

If all ads were like this one, commercial breaks would be like MTV ten years ago, when it was worth watching.

Here are my top 50 ads where music made the difference. Balls would be in there too, as would Let Yourself Go. I couldn’t find enough Aussie examples to fill my list, so I’ve had a look overseas.

Levi’s, Prague
Music: Scott Hardkiss

No brand can match Levi’s for how it uses music…

Nike, My better is better
Music: List of Demands by Saul Williams

…except, perhaps, for Nike.

Sydney Opera house, The Ship Song Project
Music: The Ship Song by Nice Cave (performed by Neil Finn, Kev Carmody, Sarah Blasko, John Bell, Martha Wainwright, Katie Noonan, Paul Kelly, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, The Temper Trap, and Daniel Johns, with Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.)

Some scoff that this ad is a copy of ‘Perfect Day’, which is why it hasn’t been winning as many awards as we might have expected. For me, this is a better version, even though I could recognise only one of the artists in it. Showing that it’s an agency that understands the power of music, The Monkeys made the track available on i-tunes and released it as a music video.

Cadbury, Gorilla
Music: In the air tonight by Phil Collins

Phil looking a bit rough, but the dude can drum.

Guinness, Surfer
Music: Phat Planet by Leftfield

Taken from the album Rhythm and Stealth, this was the track that put electro-beats band Leftfield before the public in the UK. This ad always makes me want to go clubbing, where the last thing I’d want is a pint of Guinness.

Music: Har Ek Friend Zaruri Hota Hai

I’d say 60% of the ads I found on YouTube where music was at the heart of the idea were from India. This is my favourite.

Nike, Defy
Music: Natan Kuchar

Nike uses images and music like a gentle battering ram.

Mitsubishi Australia
Music: Only get what you give by New Radicals

Cheesy car ad rescued by a cracking tune.

Levi’s, Odyssey
Music: designed by Johnny Burn of London sound house Wave Studios

The director of this ad, Jonathan Glazer, also directed Guinness ‘Surfer’. The agency, BBH, has had nine number one hits in the UK.

Honda, Grrr
Music: written by Wieden + Kennedy London creatives Michael Russoff, Sean Thompson and Michael Russell with the voice of Garrison Keillor.

The first ad to make me like a car.

Schweppes, Burst
Music: To Build A Home from the Cinematic Orchestra album Ma Fleur

An orgasmic version of Balls.

Bonds, hipsters
Music: Standing on the Corner’ by Melbourne indie girl duo Super Wild Horses

Wiggling butts and electric guitars. Hard to argue the music beats the images with this one.

John Lewis, Never knowingly undersold
Music: She’s always a woman to me by Billy Joel

Music tells the story.

BBC, You make it what it is
Music: Perfect Day by Lou Reed (performed by Lou Reed, Bono, Morcheeba, David Bowie, Suzanne Vega, Elton John, Boyzone, Burning Spear, M People, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, The Lemonheads, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Shane MacGowan…)

This orgy of talent has the whiff of a public service broadcaster trying to justify itself.

Vodafone, Happy to help
Music: Stay by my side specially composed for Vodafone

A sound borrowed from Mama Call by Manu Chao. Had the music been original this might have been my number one.

Nike, Chariots of fire
Music: Chariots of fire by Vangelis

Epic ad for hideous shoes.

Music: Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet

Cool to the point of being a bit annoying.

BBC Radio 2, Russell Brand
Music: Mix of Papa’s got a brand new bag by James Brown, I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing by Aerosmith, Sound and vision by David bowie and Atomic by Blondie among others.

Yet another ad in which the Beeb flaunts the talent at its disposal.

Levi’s, laundrette
Music: I heard it through the grapevine by Marvin Gaye

I have a CD of music from Levi’s ads somewhere called Originals. Every track on it is a classic worth having. Stand by me, Ben E. King. The Joker, Steve Miller Band. When a man loves a woman, Percy Sledge. 20th century boy, T. Rex. C’mon everybody, Eddie Cochran. This one tops the pile, and is as close as I’ve seen to the perfect TV advert.

Renault Megane
Music: I see you baby, shakin’ that ass by Groove Armada

Music makes a virtue of a very ugly rear end of a car

Hyundai, ix35 launch
Music: Herodotus by Seekae

Trippy visuals made trippier by the sounds of Sydney electro band Seekae.

Citroen, Robot
Music: Designed by James Casey

An ad where the visual effects almost certainly cost more than the music.

Yeo Valley
Music: Yeo Valley Rap by The Churned

The yoghurt brand created The Churned, a spoof boy band made up of farmers. Their debut single, ‘Forever’ is on iTunes. Love the lyrics. “Me, I like to keep it country”.

Heineken, The Entrance
Music: The Golden Age’ by The Asteroids Galaxy Tour

Heineken, another brand with strong musical credentials.

Surf Life Saving, Australian for life
Music: For You by Angus & Julia Stone

A ballad by the Aussie sibling duo from Newport (who featured in Ship Song Project) makes for a rather touching SLS ad.

New World, lucky day
Music: Fishin’ Blues by Henry Thomas

How to use music to make something as bland as a supermarket cool.

Miller lite
Music: He ain’t heavy by The Hollies

Granny gets a fireman’s lift. She ain’t heavy…

Sony Bravia, paint
Music: Thieving Magpie by Rossini

From the streets of San Francisco to Glasgow’s Toryglen estate. An operatic version of Balls.

Nike, Air
Music: Hurt by Johnny Cash

A tragic song given the spirit of Just Do It with images of toiling athletes.

Twinings Tea
Music: Wherever you will go by Charlene Soraia

The track was released on iTunes when the ad launched.

WWF, Space Monkey
Music: Song for The Divine Mother Universe” by Ben Lee

A melancholy tune adds to the weight of the message.

Tooheys Extra Dry
Music: Satisfaction by DJ Benny Benassi

Slithery satisfaction.

Moove, Road trip
Music: Picture Frames by Georgia Fair

How to make flavoured milk cool.

Music: Coldplay’s The scientist performed by Willie Nelson

Another where the song is now available on iTunes. The proceeds go to The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation.

New World, next day
Music: Lazy eye by Silversun Pickups

Another great ad from New Zealand, where music makes a supermarket cool.

Nike, Instant karma
Music: Instant karma! (We All Shine On) by John Lennon

Directed by Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network director David Fincher.

Music: Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye

Speeds her up, slows him down…

Dunlop, Tested for the unexpected
Music: Venus in Furs by Velvet Underground

Advertising as art.

Adidas, originals
Music: Why can’t there be love by Dee Edward

Like Nike, Adidas knows its music.

Colgate Gel Fresh Toothpaste

Goes to show what an influential film industry can do to TV commercials.

Tourism NT, The Red Centre
Music: Pixiphony by Kyu

Music as the voice of the brand.

Sainsbury’s, TU Clothing
Music: At Last by Etta James

Etta James and beach wear are an unlikely fit for a frumpy brand like Sainsbury’s.

Gatorade, Be like Mike
Music: I wanna be like Mike by Teknoe

I still wanna be like Mike.

Citroen, Robot (the first one)
Music: Jacques your body by Les Rhytmes Digitales

Citroen, an unutterably uncool car brand, is transformed by music.

Close up toothpaste, Dancing tub
Music: Tapas Relia by Chetan Shashital

Close up toothpaste is famous for its musical ads in India.

Fiat Strada, Handbuilt By Robots
Music: Rossini’s Figaro by Vangelis

A ’70s classic directed by Hugh Hudson.

Avios, Anything can fly
Music: Underwaters by Leila

Another where music and images just seem to fit.

Coke Argentina, World Cup
Music: A version of We didn’t light the fire by Billy Joel

Billy Joel en Español and some sinister hand waving.

Robin Hicks


  1. Opening the floodgates
    1 May 12
    9:41 am

  2. Nice list. I’d definitely add the current crop of John Lewis ads from the UK to it – Fyfe Dangerfield’s cover of Billy Joel’s ‘always a woman’ on the first in the series is surely one of the best ever ad music choices: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHcm1ec7CcY

  3. Mal damkar
    1 May 12
    9:55 am

  4. Toohey’s tongue advert for sure.

  5. Liam
    1 May 12
    10:05 am

  6. I remember seeing this Nike spot in the early nineties as a young ‘un and loving the track – it was John Lennon’s Instant Karma. I read somewhere that this was the first time a Beatles (or ex) was licensed for an Ad (true?)


    Just discovered after posting this that the ad was directed by David Fincher of all people…

  7. Liam
    1 May 12
    10:07 am

  8. And let us not forget that Nike almost bought back Elvis from the dead ten years ago…


  9. Phil
    1 May 12
    10:21 am

  10. One of the greats from Gatorade – any kid who loved hoops in the 90s had this song burned into their brain. I still want to Be Like Mike.


  11. S
    1 May 12
    10:22 am

  12. We are emotive people and especially for those auditory people out there, it adds that extra dimension and depth to a commercial. I’m surprised that this is usually slapped on last since it’s usually a beautiful tune that sticks into my mind and makes me google the thing later on…

    Love Sony’s approach to balls and paint…and Schweppes – just magic!

    Good music + effective ad = a decadent sensation for the sense

    (than just the usual assault of BUY ME CUZ I’M AWESOME)

  13. S
    1 May 12
    10:24 am

  14. /edit “senses”

    (for those fickle few)

  15. Hmmmm...
    1 May 12
    10:31 am

  16. Nice work.

    But how the hell could you not have Heineken’s The Entrance in that list?


  17. Michael Combley
    1 May 12
    10:54 am

  18. The choice of Eddie Vedder for the Kangaroo Island ad really irritated me, why use an American artist to advertise a local destination – especially when there is so much good local music material?

    The tonality and the accent of the singer seems totally out of synch with the destination. Given the budget for the ad (which must have been considerable) a cover of the song by someone local seems more appropriate

  19. Frances
    1 May 12
    11:22 am

  20. The Citroen Robot ad I remember featured the song ‘Jacques your body’ by Les Rhythmes Digitales. It fit a lot better than the James Casey song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVprhGtCls0

    My absolute favourite is this Adidas Originals ad which uses a remix of Dee Edwards’ ‘Why Can’t There Be Love’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv-pZq_VHHo

  21. Hmmmm...
    1 May 12
    11:29 am

  22. @michael combley,

    you can use an international artist because the emotions that music represent are universal, because music taps into fundamental human truths.

    what’s ‘australian’ music anyway? All the early bush/australian folk music was basically imported from England/Ireland.

    Leaving the didge out of it, there IS no Australian sound.

  23. Marketer
    1 May 12
    11:50 am

  24. How about the Sorbent toilet ads of the 1990s the way the jingle was used to build the tension in the story. Brilliant & annoyingly brain sticky.

  25. Michael Combley
    1 May 12
    11:58 am

  26. @Hmmm…… Well maybe I’m a pedant but Vedder’s accent really gave me the ‘irrits’.

    Irritation was the very specific emotion that the sound track created for me as a consumer.

    I appreciate that music is global and that influences are international which is why I specifically used the expression local not Australian.

    The ad is a very good one but perfection is in the details.

  27. enough already
    1 May 12
    12:01 pm

  28. If I hear that Schweppes music on an ad or trail one more time…..

    It’s great, but a bit overused and cliched now (though arguably Schweppes got to it before everyone else)

    Chivas used it a few years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Yzx06RLUo
    And it’s been used for about a million TV shows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T....._Orchestra

  29. Terri-Anne
    1 May 12
    12:10 pm

  30. The thing that made me laugh about the KI ad was the movie that the song originally appeared in, ‘Into the Wild’. Dying alone in the wilderness: I don’t know if that’s exactly the message…

  31. paul the freelance writer
    1 May 12
    12:10 pm

  32. The FIAT ‘Figaro’ commercial – ‘Handbuilt by Robots’ – has to be mentioned in any discussion of music in commercials. The footage is good too.

    Shame about the car; no wonder the acronym was known in the English-speaking world as Fix It Again, Tony. Those robots unknown to their masters were injecting rust into every car body.

  33. Logic
    1 May 12
    12:39 pm

  34. the sixth most google term overall is coles ad? somehow i doubt that.

  35. Robin Hicks
    1 May 12
    12:55 pm

  36. Hi Logic,

    The 6th most popular ad-related Google term was, in fact, ‘Coles ad’, believe it or not:

    Top searches for ads, 2011:

    1. Strongbow ad
    2. Bonds ad
    3. Telstra ad
    4. AAMI ad
    5. Toyota ad
    6. Coles ad
    7. Old Spice ad
    8. Target ad
    9. KFC ad
    10. Nikon ad

    Source: Google’s ‘brand zeitgeist’ survey results

    Robin – Mumbrella

  37. RB
    1 May 12
    2:09 pm

  38. I think Tourism NZ should be on that list without a doubt

    Forever Young


    I also like the Moove Ad – very nostalgic


    Good examples without having to go too far overseas.

  39. Logic
    1 May 12
    2:43 pm

  40. ok – so ad related not total searches.

    phew, i had begun to lose hope in humanity for a second there!

  41. Lem
    2 May 12
    10:43 am

  42. Nice list.

    I’d add this Nike Air ad to it – featuring Johnny Cash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9xLOC5QmKM

  43. Gezza
    2 May 12
    12:06 pm

  44. Miller Lite, He aint heavy. You will smile. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvJyZ9fm73M

  45. Ngaire
    2 May 12
    1:49 pm

  46. Great list! To your point about soundalikes when an agency can’t afford a track or the artist refuses to licence it for advertsiing, Sigur Ros have a great blog post (worded very carefully to avoid legal issues) about TVCs from around the world that sound very much like their music: http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/med.....romage.php

  47. Client
    2 May 12
    11:03 pm

  48. Yeh music is not cheap

    We paid $400K out of $1 million TVC budget for a classic older song, but it was worth it as essentially you are trading on the song’s fame and likeability for which the creator deserves a fair return.

    I won’t say what client I am as I shouldn’t be telling amounts, but fuck it.

  49. Mary Healy
    3 May 12
    7:10 am

  50. Robin Hicks, you’re a gem for bringing this up. Having repped a great music production house in New York for a few years (Elias Arts) I totally hear you. I was amazed that music was such an after thought, but in some cases the smart clients know how important it is. Check out this young composer David Wittman’s reel for some pretty fantastic music such as Nike “Magnet”, Nike “Tag”, Jordan “Second generation”http://www.davidwittman.com/portfolio-page/commercials/

  51. Brand Panda
    3 May 12
    10:12 am

  52. Why has ‘jingle’ become a dirty word in modern advertising? Most ads we fondly remember have a great tune – we rarely remember the ‘art direction’, occasionally we remember the ‘copy’ (not happy Jan) but it’s the music that makes us feel.

    I’ve had so many wrangles with agencies over the ‘afterthought’ of music, even when famous music has been part of a brand’s dna.

    Thanks for this timely article

  53. Dr Oyvind
    3 May 12
    11:08 am

  54. Was the Levi spot using Joe Cockers ‘The Letter’ in here? Late 80’s early 90’s from faded memory, but that was cracking. Can’t find it on the tube, but for those that do…

  55. Peter Rush
    3 May 12
    12:39 pm

  56. Bonds ‘Twelve days of Christmas’ sung Nick Cave style deserves a mention.

  57. Simon Hornery
    3 May 12
    2:08 pm

  58. Noticeable omission is the Kia Sportage ad. Tim Burrowes wrote that this was one of the five best ads in 2010. Of course, music is key to this ad: http://mumbrella.com.au/encore.....-tvc-71462

    See the ad here: http://mumbrella.com.au/rapper.....sage-31293

  59. Robin Hicks
    5 May 12
    2:08 am

  60. Thanks for the suggestions guys, I’ve added the best of them to the list.

    Robin – Mumbrella

  61. Devil's advocaat
    5 May 12
    11:38 am

  62. Eat football. Sleep football. Drink Coca Cola.


    Unfortunately not a great recording of a 1998 ad but it really caught the mood at the time.

  63. Jojo
    8 May 12
    12:17 pm

  64. What about the worksafe homecoming ads using Here with me (Dido)?

  65. MT
    9 May 12
    7:26 pm

  66. This for mine, is the most effective use of music in an ad

  67. Brand Panda
    11 May 12
    10:25 am

  68. Can’t believe the Eminem ‘made in Detroit’ ad hasn’t been cited yet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqr-gguaeDY

  69. Robin Hicks
    25 May 12
    9:24 am

  70. What started out as a top 30 is now a top 50 – thanks for your suggestions for great musical ads.

    Keep em coming…

    Robin – Mumbrella