An advert is, at its base level, designed to stick in your mind, to keep you thinking long enough about a message that you remember it hours, days, even weeks after the initial viewing. And the easiest way to keep an advert in your mind? By pairing an unusual, emotive or funny idea with a song that captures your senses, brings back old memories or simply makes you smile.
There have been several televised adverts of late pressing all these buttons in order to make themselves memorable and recognisable, among them, the IKEA advert featuring a modern rework of the 1980s Jona Lewie song ‘Kitchen at Parties’, and the controversial use of the Smiths’ ballad ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ for John Lewis’ most recent Christmas campaign (see above). The decision to use ‘retro’ songs and tracks from the youth of the demographic seem to be a popular choice; the use of familiar music creates a sense of familiarity with the brand and helps to create a subconscious sense of trust; they are on the same wavelength as you, what’s not to like?
But how easy is it to make an advert like this? And what’s involved in the process? We spoke to some of the creative minds behind some of the last year’s biggest adverts to get an insight.
Gavin McGrath is the creative director of BMB, who is behind the most recent Thomson holidays ad campaign, which encourages viewers to take some quality time for themselves and their loved ones. Thomson and BMB made the unusual decision to back this advert with a gentle, orchestrated version of the Pixies’ song ‘Where Is My Mind?’, although originally this song wasn’t even in the running, as McGrath explains; “We approached a composer and asked him to work up an instrumental demo of ‘Holiday’ by Madonna. It was an idea we’d been discussing at the agency; we wanted to see whether a much slower, more emotive, string instrumental version of the popular track would work on the ad. Though, whilst ‘Holiday’ worked, we felt we could do better. And it wasn’t until after we’d shot the commercial that we really started to explore alternatives. Then, one day, Arnold (Hattingh, music manager on the project) asked us to listen to a demo of the Pixies’ ‘Where is my Mind?’. Unanimously, we loved it. It just felt right for the commercial. Right for the brand.”
Thomson wanted to go as emotive as possible for its newest and biggest-ever campaign, and wanted to get the consumer as attached as it could. By choosing a song that denotes daydreams, relaxation and complete calm, it was already part of the way there; the team then chose to record over the instrumental version with the ethereal vocal of Sunday Girl. In this sense they were creating another means of promotion, by associating the song (which has since been released as a single) with the company.
The British Heart Foundation’s ‘Hands-Only CPR’ campaign (see below) needed to be memorable as well as informative, in order for the potentially life-saving message it carries to really be understood and taken on board. The choice of song wasn’t such a broad field for the creators of the latest campaign – there were only ever two pieces in the running, as Nils Leonard, executive creative director of Grey’s, the agency responsible, explains,
“The song was crucial to getting the main message of the ad across. In fact, the emergency services have used music to train staff for years and in the UK it has always been either ‘Nellie the Elephant’ or the Bee Gee’s ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ was an absolute gift creatively for BHF, and not just because of the title. It’s one of those rare songs that transcends genres and is embedded in the nation’s psyche – particularly important as this message was for the general public.”
The Most Radicalist Black Sheep Music, the music department at BBH, were responsible for the dairy brand Yeo Valley’s boy band campaign last year (see below), which broke chart history when the music used became the highest-charting branded advertising soundtrack ever. For this, an original song was created especially for the purpose, as head of music Ayla Owen explained, “The agency creative team (Martin Reid and Johnny Durgan) wrote the lyrics for the original song, and with those lyrics The Most Radicalist Black Sheep Music worked with pop/urban record producer/composer Si Hulbert, who created the music and produced and recorded the vocals.” The advert created a boy band ‘The Churned’, who sang about being farmers for Yeo Valley cows. This campaign followed the success of their previous advert, which featured the ‘Yeo Valley Boyz’ rap group.
Whether a song is an original composition or not, a huge amount of consideration is needed before making a final decision on which songs are chosen to represent a brand or a product, and how the music will be used. Will a certain song appeal to the demographic, or turn them away? Will permission be given to use the original, or will a new version be required? Does the song represent the brand in the way it wants to be seen?
Leonard said that his main consideration was that the music “will help our work to become popular culture in its own right. The music needs to enhance the advert and the message, not overpower it. The music should always enhance the brand or experience you're looking to create. Personally I think using a 'folk version' of a classic track is starting to wear a bit thin.”
Owen said that her considerations for creating a television campaign were creativity, cost and innovation, but stated that “creative excellence always comes first, and must always be at the heart of the music which is ultimately used in the ad.” She also explained that, when considering the demographic, the agency was “very in tune” with the clients’ target audiences, and often uses qualitative research, such as surveys, with target audiences in order to gauge a reaction before the music and the advert is finalised.
Grey was given the rights to use the original version of ‘Stayin’ Alive’, but how is permission granted for cover versions? McGrath explained how Thomson’s version of ‘Where Is My Mind?’ was approved: “Once we had a sampled recording that we were happy with, Arnold approached the publishers with the finished commercial and our new recording. This was then placed in front of the Pixies for their approval. So, at some point, Frank Black had to open an email and pass judgement on our work, which was kind of daunting. After we had his approval - which is a great phone call to receive - we proceeded to record a 42-piece string orchestra at Air Studios and Abbey Road.”
All three of these adverts have been extremely popular since arriving on our televisions, and have been the subject of much discussion, thanks to their choice of soundtrack. But this is not always the case, as other brands have found: Confused.com’s use of 1970s cover versions, among others, has seemingly only served to annoy the nation. But is there any real formula for success? Leonard thinks not; “certain songs are so popular they have their own, instant audience, but used properly they can also lengthen another idea. There’s no formula for getting it right every time, but every now and again you find that perfect track.”