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


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