Cash In Now, Honey: The 11 Best Uses Of Music In Commercials This Year

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Right now in a record store (probably in Seattle or maybe in Austin), two people are flipping through used vinyl and talking about music. Inevitably, one of them will turn to the other, pick up a record and accuse that musician or band of having "sold out" at one point.

Yes, even in the age of rampant downloading, there are still begrudged idealists who resent an artist making a paycheck, as if banking off a recording and inadvertently assisting in the cycle of commerce is almost as bad as commissioning for a remix. This is 2011; the very notion of selling out is preposterous. Unless you're Steve Albini or Ian MacKaye, I'm pretty sure you're a sell-out too, Mr. Cubicle.

In the list below, I've picked my favorite 2011 song usages in a commercial and the format is like this
Product: What is the musician or band hawking to the masses?
Song: Who is that band and what is that song?
Will It Sell The Product? How successful is that song in winning over the skeptical consumer?
"Sellout" Scale: Notice the quotes.

(Full disclosure: I am a freelance music journalist, but during the daytime, I am an ad man doing some selling out of my own.)

Product: Heineken
Song: Asteroid Galaxy Tour's "The Golden Age"

Will It Sell The Product? This is how the Wieden & Kennedy creative team presumably pitched this commercial treatment to Heineken: "Imagine a Tarantino-meets-Wes Anderson-inspired United Nations delegate get-together, and they're all drinking Heineken beer and having a blast and being entertained by Duffy."
But Duffy wasn't available. So they got Denmark's Asteroid Galaxy Tour and asked lead singer Mette Lingberg to wear a bob just like Duffy would. (I would love a beer right now.)
"Sellout" Scale: Selling out is what this band does best. In 2008, their single "Around the Bend" became a minor hit because of an Apple iPod Touch commercial. Ten years from now they should release a greatest-hits comp titled You May Have Heard This On a Commercial.

Product: Victoria's Secret
Song: M83's "Midnight City"

Will It Sell The Product? I'm sorry. What were we talking about? Was there a song in this commercial? I didn't notice.
"Sellout" Scale: Bob freakin' Dylan not only licensed his song "Love Sick" to Victoria's Secret in 2004, he made a cameo in the commercial itself. Which, at the time, was beyond weird—even for Dylan. So, did Anthony Gonzalez of M83, who is maybe 1/16th of Bob Dylan, sell out by allowing his song to soundtrack the primal cavorting of supermodels? That's a rhetorical question, dude.

Product: adidas
Song: Justice's "Civilization"

Will It Sell The Product? The adidas kinetic "all in" campaign smells a lot like Nike's "Just Do It." Which, by the way, is the smell of sweat and money. But this commercial directed by Romain Gavras, the auteur best known for M.I.A.'s redhead-killing "Born Free" video, works pretty well as far as semi-inspirational 60-second montage treatments go in motivating you into thinking about possibly getting off the couch.
"Sellout" Scale: Justice's first single off of its second album Audio, Video, Disco premiered in this spot. It did not go to radio first, nor was it available on iTunes beforehand—yes, this commercial was "Civilization's" world premiere video, and that means adidas paid a lot of money for that exclusive opportunity. Which is pretty impressive for a duo that makes watered-down Daft Punk.

Product: Sony 3D Television
Song: Leonard Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (spoken word)

Will It Sell The Product? When one thinks about Leonard Cohen's spoken-word poetry, shopping for a new 3-D television isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But the commercial is moving and dramatic, making Cohen's gravelly voiceover rather appropriate. (Incidentally, my neighbor has a 3-D television and he says they're a waste of money.)
"Sellout" Scale: It's hard to fault the notoriously bankrupt Cohen for agreeing to any licensing opportunity made available, but the Grey advertising agency didn't sample existing Cohen audio. He recorded new voiceovers for this commercial, which makes it kind of sell-outy. I mean, Cohen had to spend a whole day with ad people. Ech.

Product: Apple iPod
Song: Grouplove's "Tongue Tied"

Will It Sell The Product? Doesn't everybody already have an iPod Touch? If not, then this commercial—titled "Share the Fun," and actually a lot of fun—probably sold a few. It's Apple's strongest play at casting hipsters in its commercials—sideways ponytails, bangs galore, nerdy glasses. America loves hipsters. I read this in the New York Times!
"Sellout" Scale: There were big hopes for this Los Angeles band, but their debut album Never Trust A Happy Song never quite took off. This commercial will probably change that. "Tongue Tied" is jubilant, poppy, and somewhat irresistible. Weird, though, that Apple features another album Bibio's Mind Bokeh on the screen of the iPod in the spot. Are they trying to throw us off the trail here?

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As Ayre is quick to point out, the "very notion of selling out is preposterous" given the shift in music business paradigms. "Selling out" is a matter of public perception - and the cultural shift in that perception has already reached the tipping point.

While it's interesting to look at the acts in this story, I'm more interested in the indie acts that are using success from licensing deals to actually finance their own "do it yourself" approach to the music business. Here in Nashville, Joy Williams was able to use a licensing deal with Oscar Meyer (not to mention the payments she was able to collect through the unions as a singer/musician) to kickstart their independent duo, "The Civil Wars." At the moment, The Civil Wars are the new darlings of the singer/songwriter/indie crowd, with two Grammy nominations, appearing on multiple "Best Album of 2011" lists and having sold close to 250,000 copies of their debut album - and all without a major label deal.

My prediction is that "selling out" in the future won't mean that you've licensed your music for a commercial. It will mean you couldn't make it on your own, so you signed a record deal with one of the remaining major labels.


Great article! Hahaha! Bud Light Lime. I can't pay attention to how much the T-Mobile girl looks like Liv Tyler cause I'm so distracted by her clumsy manwalking!

Barry Bailey
Barry Bailey

Every time I see the City Thank You Card commercial I hear "So I got this shitty thank you card..."

John Thompson
John Thompson

That's what it's always meant, though. Back in the early 90's Sonic Youth caught no end of shit (from no less an arbiter of indie ethics than Steve Albini) for playing headhunter and shepherding indie label acts onto majors.

For what it's worth, there was a... Minor Threat song, I think (might've been Fugazi) that appeared prominently on an episode of Entourage this season. The band's policy has always been that licensing is fine so long as they aren't paid less than what would be given to any other band in their position.

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