Getting the Word Out: Discovering Music Through Advertisements

Michael P. Irwin

The television and radio commercials that we see every day are selling more than just the products in the ad -- sometimes they're selling an artist as well. It may not be the traditional way for musicians to get their songs to their listeners, but it works.

Countless sums of money are spent worldwide every year on advertising, constantly bombarding us everywhere we go. Whether it is on television, radio, in print, or online, every day we see ads that encourage us to buy one product or another. I do have to admit that every so often the pitch works, and I find myself spending money on something that I don’t really need, but that I do really want. I’m not talking about buying any of the products, though -- I’m talking about buying the music that I’ve heard used in the commercials. Whether it’s a current hit or an old classic, advertisers have been using pop music in commercials for decades, and have been doing so more and more in recent years.

One such instance that will forever stick in my head was the use of Van Halen’s “Right Now” in the ad campaign for Crystal Pepsi in the early 1990s. In fact, the commercial was even shot in a similar style to the music video, complete with the "Right now..." statements:

I really wasn’t a fan of Crystal Pepsi (or of Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen), but the two will be forever intertwined in my mind. Crystal Pepsi disappeared from the shelves in 1993, and I didn’t even get the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album until a few months ago. However, there have been a few instances since then when hearing a song in a commercial has made me say to myself, “I need to find out who that band is and get their album immediately”.

The first time that this happened, it was after repeatedly seeing ads for Guitar Hero II when it was released a few years ago. Every time that commercial came on I was glued to the television, listening to a song that sounded so much like 1970s hard rock that the first few times I heard it I was absolutely convinced that I was hearing some long-lost Led Zeppelin recording:

I later found out that the song in question was “Woman” by Wolfmother (from the group's self-titled 2005 debut album), and after listening to a handful of songs online I decided to purchase and download the album. Activision may not have sold a copy of its game that day, but the commercial definitely sold me on Wolfmother’s music.

Last fall, the advertisers got me yet again. In November I started seeing commercials for the Electronic Arts’ first-person-shooter game Left 4 Dead 2. I absolutely love zombies, zombie movies, and watching zombies get dismembered via any possible method, so it’s not surprising that I decided not to fast forward past those commercials and to watch them in full every time. However, what really kept me interested was -- once again -- the song used in the commercial:

After seeing the ad a few times I was utterly determined to find out the name of the song and the band, and spent close to an hour running random search strings through Google until finally learning that the song was “Electric Worry” from Clutch’s 2007 album From Beale Street to Oblivion. A few clicks later of the mouse later, the album was downloaded and added to my music library (Advertisers, 2/Me, 0…).

About a week ago, it happened again. It seems as though there is at least one car ad during each commercial break, and not being a car owner myself I rarely if ever pay any attention to them. However, the new ad running for the Kia Soul drew me right in, and it wasn’t just because of the animated hamsters; instead, it was the hip-hop song that the hamsters were dancing along to:

At one point during the commercial, the cameras focus in on a digital music player and one can make out the cover of Black Sheep’s 1991 album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, and after a little searching I found that the song in question was “The Choice Is Yours”. Once again, I was hooked, and was soon the owner of another album that I’d otherwise likely have overlooked.

So, that’s at least three albums that I’ve bought over the last few years directly as a result of hearing the music used in advertising. I still do not own a car or music video or zombie-killing game (or even a gaming console, for that matter) but the commercials have served their purpose and helped keep this consumer spending. While most artists would probably prefer that their music be discovered by fans through other more “traditional” channels such as radio, television -- or today’s catch-all, the internet -- the power that the advertising industry has in helping to create popularity and increase an artist’s fan base can’t be overlooked.

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