Julian Gratton

The songs made famous by TV adverts

Back when I was a student, there were a couple of songs that everybody seemed to go gaga over. The first was by a band called Stiltskin entitled ‘Inside’ and the other was by an act called Babylon Zoo whose song was called ‘Spaceman’.

Both of these songs are notable for the fact that they became so well known in the UK because they were first aired to the British public via Levi TV adverts. In the case of Spaceman, the interest in the track resulted in it going straight to number one, where it stayed for five weeks. The track also went to Number 1 in the single charts in twenty-three countries and at the time Babylon Zoo held the record for the fastest selling single for a UK debut artist.

Unlike Babylon Zoo, who were a real live band fronted by the charismatic Jas Mann, Stiltskin were actually created to front a track that was created by music composer Peter Lawler for the Levi’s TV advert. Over 40 people were initially auditioned to be the lead singer of Stiltskin before Ray Wilson took the role, and like Babylon Zoo, they never reached the same success that they achieved with their advert launched debut single.

Let’s rewind a little to the 1980s

The use of popular songs in adverts is actually quite a new thing (if you consider new being from the 1980s). Prior to this tracks had been rerecorded by cover bands for adverts to help get round licensing laws and the only instance of a song from a TV advert becoming a hit was when the New Seekers rerecorded and reworded a jingle from a Coca-Cola advert…. That jingle being ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing!’.

When laws and costs relaxed in the 1980s advertisers began to look at using famous songs for their adverts. The first brand to do this was Burger King, who used the Aretha Franklyn song ‘Freeway of Love’ to promote their restaurants in a TV advert. Many songs used during this time were actually done so without the permission of the original artists, mainly due to record companies owning the music publishing rights and not the original artists, such an example being Nike who famously used ‘Revolution’ by the Beatles without their permission.

This practice of using famous songs in adverts soon developed a pattern of reviving interest in a band or artist (remember all those great Levi’s adverts that revived interest in some classic Motown tracks?). Take for example Louis Armstrong’s classic ‘We have all the time in the world’. Originally recorded for the soundtrack to ‘On Her majesty’s Secret Service’, the track never actually registered in the UK charts until 25 years later when it was rereleased to coincide with its use on a Guinness Commercial. The track then reached number three in the charts and resulted in a renewed interest of Louis Armstrong and his back catalogue.

Emerging artists catch on

Seeing that established artists were having success with tracks used in adverts, up and coming acts began to circulate their songs in the hope they would be used in a TV advert. And who would blame them for doing this, as the amount of exposure generated with one successful advert could give artists the hit they have always dreamed of… and in one case make a hit out of a song they had released a few years earlier but had not had success with.

Here are a few examples to illustrate this point:

Biosphere: Novelty Waves

Back in 1995 there was a track I absolutely loved. I was going through my dark brooding techno phase (as you do) and discovered a track called Novelty Waves by Biosphere, which I first heard on a Levi’s advert (Directed by the talented Michel Gondry). The story goes that Levi’s were looking for an electronic track to use on their next advert as up until then they had always used more traditional music. The TV advert resulted in the track becoming a minor hit in several countries and while the advert isn’t the most memorable of the ones Levi’s produced, it certainly impressed me at the time for just being so different to anything else out there.

Mr. Oizo: Flat Beat

Believe it or not the track ‘Flat Beat’ apparently took Mr. Oizo (Quentin Dupieux) two hours to write on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The track was picked up by Levis and together with the Flat Eric character created a memorable advert for their brand of Sta-Prest jeans. The advert would help the track to go on and sell 3 million copies… a feat Mr. Oizo has never repeated.

Established artists who want to hit the mainstream

Feist… now there is an artist that everyone knows well thanks to Apple. But for years she was just another Canadian singer-songwriter doing the rounds and looking to break into the mainstream. That was until Apple used her track ‘1234’ to promote their new iPod Nano, resulting in it becoming a worldwide hit and Feist’s biggest hit single to date.

Feist, however, is not the only artist to have her career given a boost by an advert. Norman Cook before he became Fat Boy Slim had a dalliance with Acid Jazz via his band Freak Power. They originally released ‘Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out’ in 1993 but the single was not very well received and did not chart well. Luckily for Norman those pesky people at Levi’s (what is it with them and music!) loved the track so much that a few years later they featured it in an advert. Hence why in 1995 they had a number three hit with the track.

So what have we learned?

Basically if you’re an artist who has a track that you want to go mainstream then get it in an advert – ideally one by Apple or Levis. Just remember, that it could result in you being remembered as a one-hit wonder just like Babylon Zoo, Mr. Oizo and Stiltskin!

And let’s face it. It certainly can’t harm your brand if the people of a Nation are humming along to a track that you have helped get to the top of the charts!