Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Apple and Ritz: Meet the New A&R

We get bombarded with advertisements every day of our lives - directly and indirectly. It's one of the reasons I don't usually watch too much television, nor do I listen to much radio. As someone who took a communications diploma and majored in advertising, I have a particular disdain for what advertising creatives do. Sure, there are those really creative ads that make you sit up and see them as art, but I quickly learned that those are few and far between, and that whatever a client says (even when completely assinine) goes. When I got into advertising, I had pie-in-the-sky dreams of coming up with truly creative ways of presenting products - what I didn't account for was the fact I'd always be selling something. And I couldn't live with selling things I didn't believe in. And I couldn't fight for new ways of marketing things in a world with so much advertising noise pollution - even guerrilla marketing can only go so far. However, I will say I was ambushed by some relatively recent marketing by Apple and Ritz. And the fascinating part was the fact I didn't feel inclined to purchase a colourful nano iPod nor Ritz crackers, but the music being featured.

Now, music in adverts isn't a new concept, but most of the time they used to be jingles specifically written for the product or service. Some can be pretty catchy ("save big money at Menards," anyone?), but they're usually terrible pieces of music otherwise. And, of course, celebrity endorsement has been present for just as long, including musicians. My favourite advert is the iconic one featuring Peter Murphy for Maxell, but Pepsi has used pop artists to fairly large effect since the 80s and McDonalds matched up their slogan with a song by Justin Timberlake in a new bid for a jingle. I still remember those GAP ads from my high school years, which featured that guy from Phantom Planet with other people singing songs like Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough, Donovan's Mellow Yellow, and Madonna's Dress You Up in My Love, and I believe there were some winter GAP ads that featured Badly Drawn Boy. The difference in the noughties seems to be the fact that adverts for other products besides music are now breaking new bands in more and more conscious and deliberate ways. Rather than use songs that are already well-established, thus beneficial by their celebrity endorsement, these advertisers are using relatively obscure artists that the average audience wouldn't know existed.

Because the music industry and market has become so fragmented and frail in terms of marketing power, especially to the "hip" kids, planting new (respectable) songs in commercials for other things is a way to reach people. In the process, the product actually being featured hopes to be positively associated with the "cool" musical act. In the world of advertising, credibility = truth, therefore, the more credible the celebrity endorsing the product is, the more credible the product itself is. It's all about modality and control really - big advertisers have the money to control the advertised portion of reality, thus modality, that we see on a regular basis. At the same time, we, the audience, have become so jaded and cynical towards ads that advertisers realize that their power and control is becoming more limited. And, so, they hook up with labels and artists with much less financial power, thus less visibility, but with more credibility power, and a marketing symbiosis of power-sharing takes place.

The small bits of TV I was still watching in the past month featured both the ad for the colourful nanos and Ritz crackers several times, and every time I saw them, I thought to myself again, "I need to find out who sings those songs." I finally bothered to this week, but as I suspected, many others had already beaten me to it. The song for the fourth generation nano iPods is by a Brooklyn synthpop band called Chairlift, who I had already heard about awhile ago, but not bothered to check them out, thus never made the connection between them and the advertisement. And the song featured in that incredibly short ad for Ritz (the above clip is an extended one that I've never seen aired - usually only the last 10 seconds is aired) is by Sheffield folk duo, Slow Club. What I find so fascinating about all this is how attached I became to 30 seconds or less of a song. It's not often anymore that I fall for a song based on such a small sample. In each case, I always wanted the song to go on longer as I stared at the television set with anticipation and then regret. They're both such beautifully twee songs in their own ways and with creative narratives built into them that I couldn't help but take note.

Interestingly enough, when you go to purchase When I Go on iTunes, it actually has Ritz Commercial in parentheses next to it. There was an obvious assumption that people would search for this otherwise rather obscure song via the commercial it was associated with. However, it seems that this tactic can backfire. Companies like Apple, especially with their iPod and iTunes adverts, have tried to be as ahead of the curve as they could be, but in the case of whoever sang that Jerk It Out song, the hype seemed to die down pretty quick, making a one hit wonder situation. Like many A&R people, Apple is sometimes wrong, too.

Obviously not all ads attempting this cross-promotion affect me, but these two did. And I wonder whether I should feel dirty about the whole thing as I imagine all these coolhunters trawling the Internet for the next big thing in music just to sell one more box of crackers. Should it matter that I got some musical tips from advertisers? Am I being corrupted after all this time that I've avoided the solicitations from the music industry? I don't think so. I'm starting to think that a song/band is either good or not, and no matter how they gain my attention, I should just do what I've always done: evaluate based on artistic merit alone. If the song happens to be part of a marketing tactic, that's fine because I'm already fully aware it is. From what I can tell, both Chairlift and Slow Club are decent bands with several other great songs, so it doesn't really matter where I first heard them. I suppose I can also comfort myself with the fact I never buy Ritz crackers or fourth generation nanos. Then again, I already own a second generation iPod nano.

Bruises - Chairlift

When I Go - Slow Club


Rol said...

Having worked in the Evil Industry for far too many years (not through choice, but desperation), I agree with just about everything you wrote here.

That said, while I didn't know Slow Club had licensed a track for use in advertising, it's nice to hear they're making some money - maybe they'll be able to afford to put an album out now. Saw them live last year and they have some really cool songs.

anglopunk said...

I would think that people like you and I would only work in advertising through desperation - it's one of those jobs you get when you wish you could just write creatively full-time. Sadly, I'm returning to the idea of working in a communications job of some sort because I'm currently desperately unemployed.

And I agree, every Slow Club song I've heard is very very good.

JC said...

Hugely interesting read.

Nowadays, TV advertisers must be struggling badly. Dont know about anyone else, but the little TV I wattch nowadays I always switch to another channel when the ads come on.

In fact, I tend to switch direct to one of two music channels and catch a couple of minutes of whatever video is showing before switching back to the programme.

As for music in ads - it was maybe 20 years or so ago that I really noticed it when Levi's turned a whole load of oldies into re-issued #1 songs - Percy Sledge, Ben E King and The Clash spring to mind - before a change of tack saw new bands sign up and a couple of one-hit wonders emerged - Stiltskin and Babylon Zoo are the ones that spring to mind. I bet next to no-one else rembers the one-hit wonders though....(its the special powers from my music anorak y'see).

I suppose I'm not too bothered given that a song getting used in an advert tend to help a band or artist in terms of exposure and manking money. But I do cringe when a great song is used in a wholly inappropriate way - as in the use of 'This Is The Day' by The The in an awful ad for M&Ms.

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