Off The Charts

Nearly 20 years ago, when the first Beatles tune was used in a commercial, I wrote this lead in The Washington Post: “Could John Lennon ever have imagined this?”

Think how little we have progressed since then.

In those days, musicians who allowed their music to be used to flog products were considered sellouts. Today, they are anointed as marketing geniuses. It’s hardly a surprise. Given the lamentable state of the music industry, singers turn to commercials for greater exposure and, of course, increased sales. They need advertising as much as advertising needs them.

There’s no end in sight to this depressing practice. Phil Collins croons for Toyota. Led Zeppelin licensed “Rock and Roll” to Cadillac. Justin Timberlake works for McDonald’s.

And now the 1967 hit pop tune “Happy Together,” by the Turtles, which opens with the lines, “Imagine me and you, I do/I think about you day and night, it’s only right,” has been drafted into service for Applebee’s restaurants. “Imagine steak and shrimp, or shrimp and steak/Imagine both of these on just one plate.”

Yuck. Just look at the lack of creativity behind this ad. A beautiful love song has been reduced to a shoddy promotion just to get more people into what is, at best, a generic eating establishment. It’s enough to make me want to call Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, and ask him for a job.

Are pop tunes an agency’s formulaic response when they can’t think of anything better to do?

Client marketing directors should be held accountable as well. Every one who signs off on such ads would do well to remember the words of Coca-Cola’s former chief marketing officer, Sergio Zyman. “The way I see marketing in the future … is a back-to-basics marketing,” he writes in The End of Marketing as We Know It. “It is grounded in the old principles of commerce. You spend money to make money. You only hire people when you need them. And when you hire people, they’re supposed to produce incremental volume and profit.”

Advertisers don’t need to go out and spend the big bucks on pop stars when they can dust off a tried-and-true marketing practice known as the good old-fashioned advertising jingle.

You remember “Plop plop, fizz fizz. Oh, what a relief it is.” I could use some right now after seeing that Applebee’s ad. How about “My bologna has a first name”? (They did just bring back “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener.”) Or “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”? There’s “Sometimes you feel like a nut” and “Mmm, mmm, good.” I could go on and on.

Jingles are catchy, and they make people smile. There’s no risk that some musician will do something stupid while your ad is airing. McDonald’s should stick with the clever “You deserve a break today” instead of trying to appear hip to pop culture. After his Super Bowl shenanigans, does Justin Timberlake look as cool?

Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of Pepsi and its constant use of pop singers, I don’t crave the soft drink. I think of Michael Jackson’s hair catching on fire during the filming of one commercial. I see Bob Dole playing the dirty old man as he ogles the scantily clad frame of Britney Spears. My all-time favorite is when Pepsi paid Madonna $5 million for an ad that ran only once—something about her scandalous video for “Like a Prayer” messing up Pepsi’s wholesome ad. (She’s so smart. Mitsubishi paid her $11 million for a spot that aired only in Japan.)

You say you want a revolution? Forget the pop stars and their tunes. We’ll all be better off.