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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