As Music Supervisors, we are always fascinated by the music used in advertising commercials- yes we know, we do get out sometimes! Looking at some of the observations about adverts on youtube, and getting passed the “What track is this?” comments, we see that plenty of other people have got something to say about the music too. One of the biggest complaints seems to be how the original meaning of a song is totally inappropriate for an advert. They have of course got a point when listening to a song in isolation. But what happens when you synch it with new visuals, or just use the lyrics you want, or reinterpret the song with another emphasis? Does a song’s original meaning even matter?

Surfing the Internet for lists of the most inappropriate songs in adverts came up with plenty of fodder. At the top of a couple of lists was the Microsoft Windows 95 campaign using the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”:

Apart from the fact that Microsoft paid an alleged $8,000,000 to use this track, a lot of comments condemned this track as inappropriate due to the sexual nature of the lyrics.
Next on the hit list: O’jays with “For The Love Of Money” – used on many adverts over the years but more notably was the theme for the American Apprentice:

A song about the evils of money, which is exactly why it has been criticised as inappropriate use for adverts or TV shows which are about making money. An ironic use of the song?… Hmmm.

Another ad frequently criticised for the music choice is Waitrose’s ad using “Golden Brown” by the Stranglers.

It is common knowledge that the lyrics refer to drugs and so there are always a few people eager to enlighten the world of this fact!

The amazing thing about music is that by changing the context in which it is heard, we can change the way it is perceived, regardless of the original meaning. A powerful example of this is Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”. This track, originally written by Trent Reznor, is given a totally new meaning when sung by Johnny Cash, particularly when coupled with the video for Cash’s version. Suddenly all we see and feel is the deteriorating health of Cash and the chaotic life he led. This shows how reinterpreting a song can also give it new meaning, something John Lewis are becoming experts at.

Professor Charles Spence, cognitive Psychologist from Oxford helps shed some light onto the effect of combining visuals and sounds. His studies show that by successfully matching up audio and visuals, the sensory experience is enhanced by up to 1,207%. However, when the match is wrong, the impact can be reduced by up to 86%.
The examples above visually link up perfectly with the appropriate lyrics and so magnify the effectiveness of the ad and give the lyrics new meaning. In the Waitrose ad “Golden Brown” no longer refers to drugs, but the colours of autumn! So, does this mean you can use any song in any context? Well perhaps not, but you certainly shouldn’t be put off by the original meaning of a song. If you focus on the right lyrics and match them well with visuals, you can re-contextualize the original music in both an exciting and commercially effective way.