Pharma Ads Farm ’70s Songs

I didn’t know when it started happening, but what seems like a few years ago (ten? twenty?) advertisers started using clips of old songs—with even alterations of the lyrics of those songs—for background music to sell their products on television.

According to some sources, the disappearance of jingles started happening as early as the late 1960s. Advertisers began to think that the old jingles previously used would begin to sound old-fashioned to younger ears—teenagers and young adults, more and more—certainly by the ’70s. And as we all know, advertisers like to target most of their ads toward that coveted 18-to-34 age bracket.

Of course, music itself was changing, as it always will. But how music is marketed would play a part in what happened to TV commercials, as we’ll soon see. I wrote an article on the demise of the TV jingle (see my entry from January of this year, “The Soundtrack of Our lives?”). My focus today is to show how and why advertisers are using past music to accompany their messages.

There is a consensus among advertising historians that Michael Jackson was the first to make the foray into making an already released song a part of TV advertising when he adapted his hit “Billie Jean” for a Pepsi commercial in 1984. After that, celebrity-partnered ad campaigns began popping up (RunDMC with Adidas and Madonna with Pepsi).

You’d think that perhaps advertisers were misappropriating old music for their ads—especially Big Pharma. After all, Big Pharma—the largest drug companies in this country—are spending huge sums of money to promote their meds. This year alone, to date, four of the top pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AbbVie, and Bristol-Myers Squib) have spent $2.81 billion on TV ads, and that’s only 40% of all the drug ads on TV. Meaning, viewers, Big Pharma will be blowing over $7 billion by year’s end. Is that crazy?

That prime age bracket for targeted ads has been augmented to include retirees when it comes to advertising meds and medical services. After all, baby boomers make up around 25% of the consumer market, and Big Pharma would be remiss in ignoring the massive potential in revenue here. And since the music industry was already making the mechanism of licensing work for whoever wanted to use it, Big Pharma naturally gravitated to songs that were most associated with the age bracket they wanted to key on. So 1970’s music—pop songs anywhere from 40 to nearly 50 years old—were natural for the pickings.

And as we’ve seen before, TV viewers remember music as a subliminal thing, and advertisers depend on this link for viewers to remember the med. Of course, Big Pharma puts these ads on TV so doctors won’t be able to ignore their patients’ questions about them, promoting the sale through the medical system itself.

The above examples show the use of ’70s tunes: left, we have Ozempic—a drug for type 2 diabetes—using Pilot’s “Magic”, a tune from 1974; at center, we see Anoro—a COPD drug—using Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” from 1977; and at right, we’ve got Trelegy—another COPD med—using “ABC” (one-two-three), the catchy 1970 song from the Jackson 5.

Bands and solo artists have been hurting in recent years by the industry’s way of marketing music. Streaming and selling music online has truncated the amount of money made. With no retail outlets, the way music is purchased has made it practically necessary that music artists use licensing in every and any way they can. It used to be regarded as “selling out”—making your music too “commercial”. But the tide was rolling, and too much money was at stake to be ignored. Last year, revenue from licensed music amounted to over $355 billion in the U.S.

Do I like it? No. I don’t want to remember music like this. The way the advertising industry has corraled music to its use has created a miasma of sound and imagery you can’t run away from, no matter where you are—such as in a movie theater awaiting the feature film or even watching

Almost like tones in a watercolor that run together, it all becomes a blur of subliminal noise that leads me to think of mind control.




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The Soundtrack of Our Lives?

Whatever happened to original music in TV commercials?

TV commercials have always relied on ambience—background music or sounds—to set the stage for a thematic message the advertisers wanted to convey to their target audience. From the ’50s thru the ’70s, TV commercials had original music, the track and sometimes vocal accompaniment, to provide that ambience.

Advertisers were well aware that the “jingles” written for these ads became a catchy way for the viewers to remember the ads. People would even hum or sing along with the ads, after a fashion, maybe making fun of the ads. But the advertisers didn’t care one way or another, as long as people remembered their ads.

And the jingle writers were happy to crank out the tunes. Many of the composers of these tunes were songwriters looking for a way to make extra cash between writing more lengthy songs for recording artists. But it was an arm of the entertainment business—part of the way things were done.

Then something changed around the late ’80s. The jingles started disappearing. Maybe the advertising agencies felt that viewers were becoming more sophisticated, but what actually happened, certainly by the late ’90s, was that writers at those agencies saw they had at their disposal a lot of music already available to them. They could use old rock ’n’ roll tunes.

It was part of a wave of using retro imagery and sounds from days past. Baby boomers had become of age, and taking the reins at ad agencies, wanted to express those images they had grown up with as art. You might say it was an extension of Andy Warhol’s version of “pop” art. Packaging began using old off-register print images. And old rock ’n’ roll music, either instrumental versions or snippets of the original vocals, were beginning to be heard in the background of TV ads.

At first, vocalists were hired to redo the songs, even update the sound. But then the originals were starting to be heard. Even today, you can hear ZZ Top’s “La Grange” on a Geico motorcycle insurance ad.

I was watching TV a few weeks ago and heard a tune I hadn’t heard in over 40 years. It wasn’t a rock tune or even a pop song, per se. It was a simple tune called “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, which had been a minor radio hit back in 1968 for a short while and later picked up as a tune used on Sesame Street. Originally used in a Italian film, it was written by Piero Umiliani, a name long forgotten by now. The tune has no words, just nonsensical syllables uttered by a vocalist.

And here it was used on a Ford Explorer commercial where we find a father and daughter making a wood craft in their garage. So here was an instance where the advertiser decided on using a tune heard in his/her youth, recalling a happy time with Dad.

And maybe that’s why we hear these tunes that recall those happy times. The 45-to-60-year-old demographic can surely identify with that mindset. A radio station in Chicago—playing songs from the ’60s and ’70s—has a byline: the Soundtrack of Our Lives.

But then I recently heard a homogenized Steely Dan tune in an elevator.

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