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"there's borrowed equity in familiarity"

Alex File

Snipped from The Drum. Article by Clare Bowen, head of creative development at the Radio Advertising Bureau.


Play it again, Sam: Why do advertisers always reach for familiar songs? 

Following the BBC's star-studded God Only Knows film and the launch of a musical new Chanel ad, the Radio Advertising Bureau's Clare Bowen looks at why classic songs keep getting covered in adverts.

I am a big fan of the satirical news oracle The Daily Mash. For those of you not familiar with it, let me put it this way: in the same way I wouldn’t have passed GCSE history without Blackadder, I would have no grasp on current affairs without The ‘Mash.

I sometimes like to mix things up by reading The ‘Mash articles first and taking a punt on what real life events might be. In a week that saw the launch of two prolific advertising campaigns from Chanel No.5 and the BBC, with music playing a significant role in both, I was flicking through The ‘Mash archives (yes, I am that bad), only to find the ‘spoof’ article entitled ‘Music To Stay Exactly The Same Forever.’

The Chanel No.5 ad gives us Gisele Bunchen indulging in a spot of free-diving, wafting around in some perfume, then doing a casual bit of modeling before capping it off with ta trip to the opera (standard Friday at the RAB, I hear you say…) When you watch the commercial, it seems dazzlingly yet reassuringly familiar, as though you’ve seen it all before. Which of course you have. At least three times.

With this fantastical commercial, Baz Luhrmann has created advertising’s answer to Inception.

On one level, it ghosts the not-so-Great Gatsby movie, Luhrmann’s lacklustre retelling of a bored and beautiful housewife seduced by new money rather than the man. Then there’s the second  layer, the evocation of the infamous $18m Chanel No.5 advert starring Nicole Kidman and a bloke in glasses, which followed in the wake of Moulin Rouge in 2005. Yes it’s hashtag storytelling, which elevates it above advertising into positively Jungian territory, right? Heady stuff.

Then, on a third level, we have a cover version of a song written for musical theatre and film sensation Grease, in which a girl gets the man of her dreams when she swaps twinsets for leathers and takes up smoking (strong moral message there ladies, listen and learn). The song is a loaded choice in my view, not least because it’s taken from a ready-made piece of nostalgia (Grease is about 1950s American teens, written in 1971 as a musical and transferred to film fame in 1978).

Why do we find ourselves ever more hungry for such nostalgia, for a postmodern cut of the familiar, for musical paths we have already trodden and songs we already know?

Well, from an advertising perspective, there is of course borrowed equity in familiarity. In an age of fickle tastes and limited concentration spans, choosing a classic track enables you to transcend generation gaps and hook an audience with greater certainty. In the recent spate of revised song renditions from advertisers, John Lewis et al, there is something terribly reassuring about coming back to what you know, to paraphrase yet another song.

Talking at the Radio Festival in Manchester last week, Kirsty Young spoke of the intensely individual thread of association and emotion that attaches itself to music. This seems a timely tie-in with the release of the second cover song ad from the BBC with its stellar line-up pf popular artists singing God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

For me, God Only Knows reminds me of being 17, when God only knows how I passed my driving test, and lurched my way in third to a Cornish seafront to watch the sun go down with the salt-air smell of fish ‘n’ chips and freedom. I am filled with literal (littoral?) waves of nostalgia whenever I hear it.

The RAB’s ‘The Emotional Multiplier’ and ‘Audio Now’ studies have explored how brands can exploit the intimate relationship people have with music and the opportunities to use it to commercial effect. Radio – the music in particular – is proven to lift people’s mood, enhance engagement with commercial messages, and increase intent to purchase. 

The implied transference of subject in revived ad tracks such as God Only Knows, You’re the One That I Want and Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want are easy to interpret in a commercial context. And although it’s easy to read these songs as the voicing of a Christmas wishlist or a plea to the BBC licence payer, I’m not sure people outside this industry would see it as such.

People have remarked on the ‘spirituality’ of the song God Only Knows. It strikes me that lots of popular music from the 50s through to the 80s has become cannonised in our emotional and social lexicon. Is it exploitative (or simply risk-averse) to use these tracks in advertising? Arguably both. But ads like this allow us to reappraise our relationship with classic songs – and with classic brands – on a platform that is both emotionally evocative and commercially effective.

Perhaps if these classics are now the preferred choice of advertisers, this is no bad thing. Perhaps it creates a space for emerging musical talent to grow as pure artists and entertainers without so much pressure  to sell their songs to brands?

To my mind, Grease and The Beach Boys sit more comfortably in a commercial than younger, newer artists whose place in popular culture is not yet secure. Because the permission for new talent to evolve independent of restraints – including commercial ones – is what we really need to ensure The Daily Mash’s prophecy is not fulfilled.