Years ago, when United Airlines began running a number of advertisements featuring music from George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a lot of people began referring to this classic composition as “The United Airlines Song.”
Similarly, Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” piece from “Rodeo” became widely known as “The Beef Song,” due to its inclusion in “Beef … It’s What for Dinner!” commercials. Elmer Bernstein’s theme from the Western movie “The Magnificent Seven” has been referred to as “The Marlboro Song.” And recently, I’ve heard people calling “Sexy People” (recorded by Arianna featuring Pitbull) “The Fiat Song.” It is said to contain portions of the Italian song called “Torna a Surriento” composed in 1902 by Ernesto De Curtis.
I’m not putting Pitbull in the same category as Gershwin, Copland or Elmer Bernstein, but my point is that licensed music on TV commercials often ends up being associated with that product rather than the person or persons who created or performed the music.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? That, of course, depends on your point of view. If you’re a music teacher or someone who appreciates fine music, it can be shocking or upsetting to realize that many consumers have no real knowledge of the significance of the music or the composer.
For the composer, if he or she is still alive and aware of the misunderstanding, it can probably be offensive or else simply regarded with mild amusement. Keep in mind that when a major company licenses the use of music in its commercials, the composer (or his/her estate) does make a lot of money.
I remember being very surprised — and turned off — the first time I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” featured on a Cadillac commercial. As a kid, or young adult, I thought of Cadillacs as cars that rich old men drove. Thus, how could Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “sell out” and allow this music to be used for such a purpose? Or as Jack Black’s character in “School of Rock” might protest, “What happened to stickin’ it to the man?”
Presently, I would be lying if I told you that I wouldn’t be thrilled if one of my compositions got picked up for use on a major ad campaign. It could enhance my reputation and yes, it could be lucrative. I suppose that my attitude toward the situation would also depend on the type of product that was being advertised. Would I want my name and my image to be aligned with that product?
I don’t work in the advertising industry and don’t know exactly why specific pieces of music are selected to represent certain products. In the cases I mentioned above, I can take some guesses.
United Airlines has a blue logo and it wants your flying experience to be rhapsodic, rapturous, exhilarating. Beef production and consumption are associated with cowboys, the Wild West, bountiful living. The Marlboro Man, the symbol of Marlboro Cigarettes when cigarette ads were still allowed on TV, was a rugged cowboy. Fiat and Cadillac want you to believe that the people who drive their cars are sexy and cool.
The next time you hear a catchy pop song or a piece of classical music on a TV commercial for a car, a hamburger, a bank or any other product or service, do me a favor. Stop to think about why you like or dislike the music and why you think it was chosen to sell or promote that product. Then, last but not least, take the time to look up the name of the composer and learn something about him or her.