“It’s only been quite recently, [as] advertising has been shifting more toward the genre of content, that the industry has allowed itself to use music the way normal people like to use it,” said John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Australia and lyricist behind “Dumb Ways to Die,” the cartoon-maiming, sing-along train safety PSA for Melbourne’s Metro. “We abused music and did hideous things with it when ads were 30 seconds long.”
Indeed, the songs in this new wave of marketing music aren’t the cheesy, hard-selling jingles of yore. They’re narratives that take the place of voiceovers, on-screen copy or vaguely associated soundtracks licensed from cool indie bands.
“A brand song is just like any good pop song,” explained David Muhlenfeld, a creative director at The Martin Agency. Muhlenfeld wrote the lyrics and music for Oreo’s catchy new “Wonderfilled” campaign, in which name artists like Owl City and Kacey Musgraves sing his songs. “Whether you’re talking a broken heart or a cookie that makes people happy, if it feels true and you write it from that perspective, on some level, you can’t reject it,” he added. “It doesn’t feel dishonest. It doesn’t feel cynical.”
Muhlenfeld speaks from experience, having previously penned sardonic ditties for FreeCreditReport.com—early entries in the genre that helped him carve out a role for himself as agency bard. He also has written ad songs for Walmart and Comcast.
Other brands simply turn to songwriters. McCann’s Commonwealth unit hired Grammy-nominated Nashville songwriter Will Hoge to write a paean to pickup truck drivers for Chevy Silverado. It was featured in a 3 1/2-minute ad that broke nationally last week during Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby.
North, an independent agency in Portland, commissioned 25 songs from Oregon artists in a range of genres for a Woody Guthrie-inspired campaign about the state’s new Obamacare health insurance exchange. “It was important to get people who Oregonians were already familiar with, so they felt like it was coming from the state and not just a marketing skin,” said Mark Ray, ecd at North.
Of course, the strategy isn’t without risks. The music may come across as cloying. Still, “a well-written, catchy new song has the huge advantage of distinctiveness,” said Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at NYU. Added Mescall of his “Dumb Ways” song: “This could have gone horribly wrong.” Instead, it sold more than 100,000 copies on iTunes and charted on the music seller’s top 10 in a half-dozen countries. Oh, and the ad itself has garnered more than 50 million views on YouTube in eight months.