Selling Out! (History of Advertising Project)

Selling Out!

In 1987 I was the same age as future super-agency Weiden+Kennedy and, according to the news, probably a little smarter. After all, I wasn’t embroiled in a lawsuit with the most beloved rock and roll band of all time, and I hadn’t pissed off an entire generation.

Apple Records, the label of a little band called The Beatles, launched a law suit against Nike, Capital Records, EMI, and the four year-old advertising agency over the use of the song “Revolution” in a sneaker commercial. A massive controversy ensued.

At least I think it was massive. In my household it was larger than a Watergate-Lewinsky combo, biggie-sized. I have vivid memories of my dad bitching endlessly when he saw that spot during its short run, and he was in the advertising businesses at the time. Not only was it the first scandal that I can remember, it’s probably the first commercial.

Let’s add a little context. This was a group that redefined rock and roll as art for many millions of baby-boomers. John Lennon was less than seven years in the grave. The band is almost undisputedly the most important one in modern musical history, and not only changed what people heard, but the way they thought. Plus “Revolution” (the lyrics of which are actually anti-revolution) was my dad’s favorite Beatles song, and you just didn’t use it to sell a pair of Nike Airs.

Flash forward seventeen years. A mustachioed Bob Dylan, maybe a half-step below The Beatles in rock ’n roll importance, appears in the Victoria’s Secret “Angels in Venice” commercial.

Maybe because of the sheer weirdness of 63 year-old folk singer selling bras and panties, or because (unlike Lennon) Dylan was alive and kickin’ and in the spot by choice, a thorough lack of controversy followed. Here’s what one particularly articulate fan says in response to another who dared to imply that Dylan sold out:

(tommie66tx from

“you’re a retard. he’s not a sell out. he’s a grown man who made a choice that every man on this planet would have made. Spen 3 days in Italy with some sickenly beautiful woman, prmote your new song and get paid 1 million dollars”…”he’s BOB DYLAN fuckface, he can do whatever the hell he wants”

Who says the internet breeds ignorance? But Mr. 66tx may have a valid point. Dylan has already made a huge mark on our culture; does every action in his life have to carry some kind of deep significance? Can’t the dude just kick back with some supermodels every once in while, especially when someone offers him money to do so? Does a minute long advertisement erase thirty years of thought-provoking lyrics and solid tunes?

One can’t examine the role of popular music in advertising without looking at its history, and that begins with the first ad medium capable of producing sound; the radio. Much like Frank Hummert’s soap operas, early musical programs were not only sponsored, but created by advertisers. I don’t recall the Lucky Strike Orchestra or the Vick’s Vap-o-Rub Quartet being accused of selling out, but I could be wrong. “Have You Tried Wheaties?” (1927) not only gave rise to the concept of the jingle, but was popular hit in its own right. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” was created for Montgomery Ward to sell coloring books, and has since spawned an entire mythology.

Even today, musical radio is essentially nothing but advertisements. In between the actual commercials are radio singles. These singles aren’t released for public benefit; they’re carefully selected to appeal to a broad audience so that the artist can sell CDs or concert tickets. These singles are usually either obviously great, border-bridging masterpieces, or (more often) inoffensive, lowest common denominator fare.

I’ve noticed that over the last five years or so, the quality of music in commercials has improved, and I increasingly hear a lot of my favorite artists in ads. But I don’t feel the same kind of outrage that my father felt twenty years ago. In fact, I actually enjoy it. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

The musical landscape has changed, and it has the internet to thank and curse. The availability of free (mostly illegal) .mp3’s has all but crushed CD sales, and the major labels that sell them. While this was very bad for Britney Spears and N*Sync who sold millions of CD’s during the late ‘90’s, it was very good for smaller (and much better) indie rock bands like Wilco, or Modest Mouse. These groups never got radio play anyway, and made much more of their modest income in touring, not record sales. Suddenly millions of people had free access to music that was previously off their radar.

With record sales now a fraction of what they were a decade ago and the internet overtaking the radio as the number one means of exposure to new music, there has been a leveling of the playing field. This doesn’t mean that indie rock bands are making a lot more money; just that everyone is now making less. This leads me to my belabored point: bands had to find new ways of making money, and commercials offered an alternative.

I’m happy that my bands are making money, because that means they can afford to keep making music. As long as they aren’t changing the music they make to appear in more commercials, I don’t consider it selling out at all. On the same token, I’m happy to see that the guys making these commercials are listening to some good shit. If I’ve got to sit through a Volkswagon ad, it may as well be this one.

That’s not to say that everyone is pleased. There’s still plenty of “fans” who are quick to accuse an artist of jumping the shark for allowing their music to appear in commercials. Band of Horses, another popular indie rock band allowed Ford to use their song “Funeral” in a commercial, and licensed another song to Wal-Mart (and The Martin Agency, I assume), before backing out of the deal with the mega-retailer.

Lead singer Ben Bridwell:

“My personal stance is that once that music is recorded and released to the world then I don’t really care where it goes”…Some fans, they don’t even give a crap. They’re like, ‘Whatever, bands got to get paid.’ But at the same time, I was reluctant to do it in the back of my mind, and some fans reminded me there is a reason to feel that way about it. So once I saw our fans were let down by it, I nixed the TV commercial, and said, ‘You know what, this isn’t for me. Keep your money.”

Not all artists are okay with using their music to sell stuff. The Arcade Fire, another critically lauded band, sued Fox for using their song “No Cars Go” in an ad for the Super Bowl. That Fox didn’t ask permission or offer them any money might have something to do with the lawsuit (and why the hell would you need to advertise the friggin’ Super Bowl).

The lawsuit over “Revolution” was settled in November of 1989, though the terms remain a secret. The backlash over the ad didn’t stop W+K from using Lennon’s voice in another Nike commercial, this time it was “Instant Karma.” I’d bet that “Revolution” controversy actually spurred them to try it again. You know what they say about the existence of bad publicity.

I think the reaction of my dad and his generation was justified, but it was an isolated incident. The commercial was done without the consent of the artist. An artist can license his music without affecting his credibility, just as long as his image isn’t built on being anti-commercial. And in that case, what right does he have selling concert tickets and records?

Adam Gardner

Selling Out! Sources,_Inc. (Wikipedia article on Nike for Revolution controversy info) (Various Commercials) (Information on old radio music/advertising crossovers) (pretty self explanatory) (Weiden+Kennedy’s website, has a timeline of their ads) (info on Band of Horses ad controversy) (Arcade fire and the superbowl)


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