Start the Commotion
Author’s Warning: The following is another contribution to the accumulating coverage of the nexus between automotive marketing and music. While this may seem dubious to some people, it is predicated on the fact that (1) automotive manufacturers are among the world’s leading marketers, which means that they are spending staggering amounts of money trying to convince consumers not only of their products’ relevance and importance and desirability, but (2) that they are evidently convinced that it is imperative to persuade a group of people who range in age from 16 to 49, people with disposable income, that they, the vehicle manufacturers, are clued in, and the means through which they are doing this is borrowing the music of the relative generations (from Dirty Vegas to Led Zeppelin). Their co-option—although often voluntary and driven purely by economic motives—of the musicians’s work dwarfs that of any other class of corporation when it comes to using music for what is essentially propaganda. Perhaps it is irrelevant to dwell on this. Perhaps we should just be blithe to the whole sociopolitical ramifications (it isn’t just Clear Channel that determines who you see and what you hear—not by a long shot) of this. If that is your position, then stop reading this now, if you didn’t already.
Mitsubishi Motors had a problem. It was simply that compared to other Japanese brands, they weren’t moving much sheet metal in the world’s most important market for cars and trucks, the American market. Some of this had to do with distribution. They didn’t have as many outlets as the other guys. Part of this had to do with product. Some of it (e.g., the Mirage) just didn’t make the grade as compared to the likes of the Civic and the Corolla. And another aspect of this had a lot to do with image. Whereas Honda has become closely identified as being the brand that tuners gravitate toward, and Toyota has the reputation for providing bulletproof (but comparatively bland) transportation, Mitsubishi was, essentially, as the name of their WWII airplanes had it, zero.
One of the consequences in being in this position was that they faced economic constraints with regard to what they could do. So they opted for cleverness to be a lever. In 1998, the company awarded its advertising account to Deutsch Inc.’s LA office. Which came up with a theme, “Wake Up and Drive.” The target was to be young, edgy, spirited group—not my characterization, but what I was told by the vehicle manufacturer’s vice president of Corporate Communications & Public Affairs. The brand positioning included the notion that the cars “make you look and feel alive.” So to wake up people, they turned to music, music that is ostensibly coming out of the speakers of the various vehicles as people are on their way to hip venues. The people in VW ads are comparative slugs to these. And the people driving in the rocks in the Nissan spots are just so, well, déclassé. Waking up includes seat dancing. Popping.
Whereas the DaimlerChrysler bank account is deep enough to sign Aerosmith, Mitsubishi didn’t have the requisite amounts to sign big names to their advertising campaign. So some audiophile at Deutsch went listening for options. One such option was a 1998 number from The Wise Guys, “Start the Commotion,” which was released in the U.K. and quickly departed the charts. It sounded right for the black and white, quick-cutting, trendy spots of attractive people driving the Eclipse. But what’s interesting to note is that the commercial in question (entitled “Fun”) was released in 2001, long after “Start the Commotion” had proved to be a non-starter. The aforementioned veep told me that thanks to the car commercial, “Start the Commotion” was driven to the Top 10 in the U.S. (And, yes, Mitsubishi sales have increased.)
There have been several spots in the series. “One Week” from the Barenaked Ladies for the Lancer. “20th Century Boy” from the sometimes-lamented voice of Marc Bolan and T. Rex for Montero Sport. “Lust for Life” by Iggy for the Galant. Not the A-team, but getting it done.
What is the most interesting—and possibly troubling—is the most recent spot, which features “Days Go By” by the British trio Dirty Vegas. The song has been nominated for a VH1 “Visionary Video Award” and “Best Dance Video” in the MTV Video Music Awards. Not bad. But read this, from the Dirty Vegas website:
“Earlier this year  the song [“Days Go By”] was picked by car maker Mitsubishi to use as the soundbed in a US TV Ad campaign. The song received more attention than the car and soon “Days Go By” became the most added track at radio, the stunning video became a fixture on MTV, and Dirty Vegas became probably the hippest band in America.”
What the band’s self-adulatory praise leaves out is that it seems that the release of “Days Go By” was coordinated with the Mitsubishi ad. Evidently, the band knew what Mitsubishi had done for The Wise Guys, so they, too, decided it is better to be smart than good.
It was once necessary for bands to convince record companies, promoters, and radio stations that their music was worthwhile. Now, apparently, there is another category that may be more important: Car manufacturers. As is the name of “The Mitsubishi Mix, Vol. 1″ (Warner Special Products, Warner Music Group, an AOL Time Warner Company) puts it: Are You In?