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You Say You Want A. . .Car?

Sting pioneers revolutionary trail to TV commercials

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It looked like your typical VH1 music video. Gordon Sumner, aka Sting, sitting regally ensconced in the back of a speeding luxury car, chauffeured over the desert sands at high speed while singing along to his mega-hit, "Desert Rose," the wind riffling through what was left of his hair.

Except this wasn't a video at all -- it was a TV commercial for Jaguar, the British luxury car maker, which just happened to coincide with the release of Sting's Brand New Day recording in 2000. But wasn't this the same song you can still see on VH1 in the exact same setting? What's going on here?

What happened is that Sting's "people" made a video specifically with the idea of pitching it to Jaguar. Rather than an afterthought, it was part of the pre-release planning, one of those mutually beneficial business deals that just four years later has become a virtual staple of both the advertising and music industries.

This is how Sting described it on the Jaguar website:

"The director proposed a number of cars to be used in the video and I chose the Jaguar S-Type. It's a beautiful car and it evokes the feeling and style of success we were trying to achieve."

The video was then shopped to Jaguar. Sting told Billboard at the time that the luxury automaker "flipped" when presented with the opportunity.

""We'd like to use that as our commercial,'" Sting quoted the Jaguar officials as saying. And when it came time to talk money, Sting -- who lives in a castle -- said, why bother? "We don't really need any money; it's like promotion for our single."

But what about Jaguar? Did it help them, and if so, how? Jaguar wouldn't release any figures, but what the Sting song (and later ads featuring other songs from The Propellerheads and even the Clash) may have done for Jaguar was bought them some cachet with another generation of potential buyers.

But is there hard evidence that a song can sell cars, beer or food? One answer can be found in the old Madison Ave. saw: They wouldn't do it if it didn't work. While Sting's 2000 ad may be the obvious example of the "synergy" (his word) between the music industry and advertisement world, turning tunes into jingles is now not just commonplace, it's practically ubiquitous. The sacrosanct Beatles had their counter-cultural screed "Revolution" turned into a sneaker commercial. Paul McCartney complained vigorously about the use of Beatles material in advertisements (Michael Jackson, who owns the rights to their songs, sold "Revolution" to Nike), all the while selling Buddy Holly songs -- which Sir Paul happens to own the rights to -- to various advertisers.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg: by now, Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" might as well have been written by Chevrolet; the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" sells Microsoft; the Who's "Happy Jack" hawks Hummers, and Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" shills Cadillacs, virtually 24/7 over the last couple of years. The fact that Classic Rock's behemoths have joined the advertising world isn't all that surprising, given that many are as rich as the executives at the same giant corporations -- the major labels -- they've helped enrich over the years.

But lately television sounds increasingly like an underground college radio playlist (or 30- and 60-second snippets of college radio playlists, anyway). From Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Buzzcocks and the aforementioned Clash, advertisers have realized that the only message that matters is: Buy Our Product.

"The lyrics are strong, but they're not offensive to anybody," a Jaguar spokesman told the Boston Globe after the company got the OK to use the anti-capitalism/consumerism "London Calling" in an ad -- especially when almost the only words heard were "London Calling." (Before his death, Joe Strummer justified the use of the song by reminding people that the band had taken huge royalty cuts in order to sell their double and triple albums -- London Calling and Sandinista, respectively -- for single-disc cost. Whatever your take on the issue, it's a good bet the younger Strummer wouldn't have approved.)

As the Globe author contends, it "probably boils down to the fact that commercial-makers are clever enough to know that a song's "real' meaning doesn't actually matter...from an ad-maker's point of view, even the most edgy rock & roll is just so much musical wallpaper."

This all raises the aesthetic and ethical (and often not all that well-thought through) questions many music fans can't get past -- isn't rock & roll supposed to be about rebellion, not propping up the status quo? And what about the corrosive influence of commerce on the art of music-making?

The questions transcend any one era, too, though it appears each generation seems a little less averse to the idea of marketing and music. And whereas a young Bob Dylan would have blanched at the idea of hawking Victoria's Secret lingerie (which a 40-year-older Bob Dylan does), today's artists are often faced with that question at a much younger age. Today's indie heroes, or what passes for counter-cultural icons now, often have to make this decision early in their careers. Unlike the behemoths of Classic Rock lining their already deep pockets, many young artists find themselves virtually forced to turn to television as one of the few outlets through which their music can even be heard -- such is the sordid and homogenous state of both the radio and recording industries. "New Slang" by Sub-Pop's Shins sells Big Macs, Miller Genuine Draft uses Modest Mouse's "Gravity Rides Everything" and Smog's "Held," the Gap peddles Badly Drawn Boy's "The Shining" -- the list is virtually endless and only likely to grow longer.

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