Advertising Killed the Radio Star: How Pop Music and TV Ads Became Inseparable

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Pop singers and TV advertising seem to be a perfect match for each other. Clockwise, from top left, an Old Navy commercial featuring music by Ingrid Michaelson, OK Go and Chevy, Feist and Apple, and Sting and Jaguar

Chances are you’ve heard indie singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. But not on the radio. Or in a music video. And probably not from buying her album, or even downloading her songs from iTunes.

Instead, you might’ve seen an Old Navy commercial featuring the 32-year-old’s lilting “The Way I Am,” a song that seems almost too perfect for selling sweaters. Or the Google Chrome ad with an instrumental version of her song “Sort Of.” Then there’s the Mott’s Apple Juice spot, the Ritz Crackers ad and the Stand Up to Cancer commercial, all with Michaelson’s catchy, sunny single “Be OK.”

Those ads might’ve been broadcast while you were watching Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Parenthood, Hellcats, Scrubs, Bones, The Big C, Brothers & Sisters, Army Wives, Pretty Little Liars or Body of Proof — all television shows, and all of them featuring Michaelson’s music. And we haven’t even gotten to the movies and DVDs that include her songs.

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The ways listeners are discovering Michaelson, a skilled multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who writes unequivocally upbeat songs, says nothing about her exceptional talent but everything about the music industry — or lack thereof — which has become a dwindling yet evolving business in which ads break emerging artists and TV spots are music videos.

Last year, worldwide licensing revenue from synchronization — a fancy term for pop music in ads — hit an all-time high at $2.5 billion, according to Heartbeats International, a music-branding agency. The tangled relationship between popular music and advertising has evolved over the past decade. Many in rock ’n’ roll long believed that any artist helping to sell something was “selling out.” Today, our consumerist culture has fallen in love and married our most popular art form — and the old arguments about using pop music to sell a product don’t seem to matter in an era when profits for musicians have fallen away. The idea that licensing music is somehow different from selling music through iTunes isn’t taken seriously anymore.

Michaelson, who released her new album, Human Again, on Jan. 24, doesn’t seem worried about any of this. It was far from her mind in 2007 when Old Navy contacted her through her Myspace page and later decided to use “The Way I Am” in an ad. And most of today’s musicians are of the same mind-set.

“The hope when licensing your music is that a few people will like what they hear,” Michaelson says. “Then those people will seek out the song and buy the song and/or record and become a fan.”

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In fact, she did exactly that — became a fan — when Volkswagen featured the late songwriter Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in 1999, in an ad that many in the industry saw as a game changer — and that some say was work of art in its own right.

“There are so many emerging artists. Very few of them endorse the philosophy that it’s selling out in any way,” says Josh Rabinowitz, senior vice president and director for ad agency Grey Worldwide. “It’s not even a part of their culture anymore.”

So why isn’t licensing music for advertising selling out? How did we get from Neil Young singing that shilling for Pepsi would make him look like a joke to pop musicians writing songs specifically for TV spots? As Americans approach Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll see a number of popular bands featured in ads — OK Go and Mötley Crüe, to name two — and likely a few emerging artists who a decade ago would have never considered being in an ad. Somehow, the line between pop music and advertising became blurry and then disappeared altogether. How’d that happen?

The Jingle’s Jangled Morning
Almost a century ago, songs in commercials were recognizably distinct from popular music — even though tunes in both genres were often extremely catchy. The jingle was its own art form and had its own artists who realized, before science proved it years later, that melodies get lodged deep in our brains and don’t leave. What better way for consumers to remember your product?

While there’s some debate over the first jingle, many point to “Have You Tried Wheaties?,” a radio ad that aired on Christmas Eve in 1926. Sung by the aptly named Wheaties Quartet, a barbershop male group, the ad melodically asked, “Have you tried Wheaties?/ They’re whole wheat with all the bran/ Won’t you try Wheaties?/ For wheat is the best food of man.” The story goes that Wheaties executives had planned to discontinue the struggling cereal until they noticed that sales had spiked in areas where the jingle aired. After broadcasting the song nationally, Wheaties took off, and the first true commercial tune was a success.

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By the 1950s and ’60s, jingles began morphing into full-fledged songs. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet,” “If I were an Oscar Mayer wiener” and “Plop plop/ fizz fizz/ oh what a relief it is!” all became part of the American lexicon. But they remained distinct from what most Americans heard on the radio.

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