Oct 09

Tuning Authenticity, part 1

I wrote this as a chapter some years back for the book Creative Destruction (2004) about the impact of “new technology” on the music industry. As is clear today, music has changed from being a high-brow practice with little regards for commercial aspects, to being an essential part of the marketing message in the experience economy.

The chapter (I chopped it up into 5 digestible parts) investigates the development of the musical stake in advertising which seems to be profoundly connected with values of authenticity. So, basically it’s about authenticity in youth culture: A commando-raid through music and advertising, and lessons learned by marketing.

When Mitsubishi Motors launched its 2003 Eclipse in the USA, it hit the American homes with a TV commercial showing a group of people cruising a night lit downtown area in the car. All in good spirit and with the girl in the passenger seat throwing some happy dance moves in a pop-locking style to the irresistible groove of the music accompanying the spot. The track was “Days Go By”, produced by UK three piece Dirty Vegas. The year before “Days Go By” had been pushed into no. 27 on the UK singles chart by DJs like Pete Tong who played it on his Radio One show for 12 weeks running. But in America, Dirty Vegas were virtually unknown when a marketing man from Mitsubishi spotted the original video for “Days Go By” in rotation at MTV in Holland.

The video showed an older businessman transformed into his younger self by break-dancing outside a retro diner in what gathering pedestrians tell us is an annual dance performed in honor of his lost love. A single shot of the man (then and now) makes up most of the video, with occasional footage of the band inside the diner.

The car commercial that followed was a smash and had people calling into radio stations to request “that song from the Mitsubishi ad.” The lush commercial struck a chord, in other words. It created a buzz, or – as phrased by Rolling Stone magazine – it had “the cumulative power of vibe.”

In fact, this vibe was exactly what Dirty Vegas themselves liked most about the video when they saw the final result. Vocalist Steve Smith told Yahoo!’s Launch that the video “didn’t seem to be about a car, it was about a vibe, you know. There’s the gang of people in the car and they’re popping, you know, and it’s inspired from our video, you know, which we see as a compliment. And we just thought, ‘It’s cool,’ you know? ”

Vegas’s Paul Harris seconds that with his remark, that adverts are “not as dull as they used to be, and what they’re trying to sell isn’t the most important thing. In the Mitsubishi ad, you don’t even know what it is until the very last second.”

Vinny Picardi, Vice President and associate creative director of Deutsch LA, the agency responsible for developing the advertising concept for Mitsubishi, remembers when they began thinking of ideas that would take Mitsubishi’s marketing in a new direction. He knew they didn’t want to make just another car commercial. Instead, Deutsch came up with a simple concept: Show people, especially young people, doing things that drivers and passengers actually do in their cars – such as singing along with songs on the radio.

“People hate commercials,” he explains. “We wanted to make little pieces of entertainment.”

Mitsubishi Motors have used a string of tracks for the various manifestations of the concept since its inception in 1998. Besides Dirty Vegas, the roster includes artists such as Propellerheads, Gus Gus, Groove Armada, and The Wiseguys. Mitsubishi have also used tracks from bigger artists, such as Iggy Pop, Ozzy Ozborne, and Curtis Mayfield, but – in Picardi’s words – “the idea is to have a tune relatively unknown to American audiences become associated with Mitsubishi, rather than have Mitsubishi become associated with an established hit.”

This is in direct opposition to the strategies recently deployed by e.g. Jaguar and the Chrysler Group, featuring mega stars Sting and Celine Dion respectively appearing in person in commercials for their products. By advertising standards, the Mitsubishi campaign is relatively innocent. The 2003 Eclipse looks more like a music video than a traditional ad. The cutting and editing is extremely tight, there’s no product commentary, and the song itself is used to set the scene more than to pitch the product.

Strategies for credibility

Such corporate lock-in with credibility is by no means a new phenomenon. In the eighties, a version of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” made up the track for a Sunkist commercial, and in 1967 Jefferson Airplane agreed to sing a Levi’s radio spot for Stretch Levi’s. But the real landmark in the partnership between music and advertising was shaped when the UK agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty began creating innovative television commercials in Europe for Levi’s 501.

At the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, the jeans market had become saturated. Levi’s were losing market share, and the advertising brief handed over to BBH was strategic; to reposition Levi’s against its competitors by foregrounding the authentic value of the product.

Levi’s brand values are – and have most appropriately always been – “the real deal” – to be authentic, original, and dependable. BBH wanted to achieve a general sense of a mythical America with the advertising, but an America open for contemporary associations. John Hegarty of BBH explains: “I thought it would be more interesting to do the ad with a period look. The 1950s idea wasn’t in the brief. It just happened, and out of that we established a mythical period for Levi’s. Grapevine, the music that backed the ad, was a 60s not a 50s song – it came to me simultaneously and there was no real logic to it. The aim was to portray the US without the US being boring – a US no-one could object to.”

When the ad was aired on Boxing Day 1985, it had model Nick Kamen stepping out of his 501s in a 1950ish set, to treat them to a stone wash in a small launderette, while Marvin Gaye’s soulful 1968 Motown hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” made up the sound frame, enhancing the atmosphere of authenticity.

A lot has been said and written about this ad. For advertising, it has been argued that it marked a turn in how it displayed a fracturing and sexualization of the male body, through the product. For Levi-Strauss, sales of its 501s shot up by 800 per cent in the wake of the ad. And by 1987 sales of Levi’s jeans were reported to be 20 times what they had been three years earlier. The ad also meant a re-entry into the charts for Marvin Gaye’s song. In fact, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was the first of four Levi’s-related songs to all make the Top Ten. And for the Clash who provided the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” to the Levi’s 501 campaign in the early nineties, it was the band’s first number one hit – six years after they split up.

Hence, the launderette ad was also instrumental in developing the integrated marketing package: a commercial on the television, a single in the chart, as well as the ‘501’ logo alongside the artist’s name on the record in all the record shops. This may be defined as the turning point for music and advertising; the point that made advertisers realize the importance of selecting the right music. Music, on the other hand, has taken a long time to realize the importance of being chosen.

As that “great divide”, as Andreas Huyssen calls the incongruence and opposition between high modernism and mass culture, closed itself permanently and thus also in the academic sense brought highbrow and mass culture on the same formula, it became legitimate for artists to associate themselves with mass culture. Before that, artists were wary to be associated with mass consumption, possibly seeing the niche as the sign of true art as opposed to pop, and fearing accusations of selling-out. But post-modernity changed that.

Post-modern times have served as a unifying factor in bringing fine arts together with pop culture, a development spearheaded by the likes of Andy Warhol’s silk screens and the electronic folk of Düsseldorf four piece Kraftwerk. As the 1990s came to an end, it had become increasingly difficult for artists – musicians and producers – to sell out. In fact, when producer of electronic music Richard Melville Hall, aka Moby, actually did, media reported in awe about how he had managed to license every single track of his album “Play”.

When it first came out in the summer of 1999, the album’s compelling mixture of electronic beats and visceral blues and gospel samples drew great reviews, but catered little for radio and MTV. So, instead Moby decided to license his tracks to commercials, movies and television shows, and before long, his music was everywhere: on sitcoms and movie trailers, and on ads for Bailey’s Irish Cream, Nordstrom and American Express.

[I know, In My Heart is not on “Play”, but is featured on the later “18” (2002)]

V2, Moby’s label, signed a license for every track on the album, and allegedly more than 100 licenses in North America alone, for which Moby’s cut reached an estimated USD 1 million. But more important, the exposure opened doors at radio and MTV, who now helped to promote the album, pushing sales of the album up to a total of around 10 million copies worldwide, or around 50 times as many as the 200,000 copies Moby initially had thought “Play” might sell.