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?
While Carlos Santana garnered a whole new category of listeners thanks to the exceedingly popular Supernatural recording of 1999, we’ve got to think that it may be over for him, once again. This prediction is based on the news that he is participating in the “Acura Presents Santana Tour,” which includes 12 performances during a two-month period. (No, this isn’t a case of it taking two months to hit 12 venues, but it will be some in August, some in October.)
Acura makes awfully good cars. Of that, there can be little question, so the association isn’t shaky. And while the notion of corporate entities backing tours has been slogged on this site many times, that’s not why I suspect he’ll soon be back listened to mainly by the long-standing stalwarts (as distinct from that entire Gap-clad cadre that “found” him), either.
It’s simply this: last year’s “Acura Presents” Tour featured Paul Simon. The year before that it was John Fogerty. (See a demographic pattern here?) And when is the last time you hear anything from either of those two, unless it was on a “classics” station (or turntable)?
Perhaps this is Acura’s version of the Sports Illustrated jinx.
One would assume that there aren’t too many people who model their behavior after the band members of AC/DC. OK. There are some. People who “party hard.” People who like to wear hats indoors. People who don’t mind showing off their knobby knees by endlessly wearing shorts. Rock hard. Party hearty.
But does anyone make any serious investment decisions based on the recommendations of AD/DC? While I wouldn’t have thought so, apparently some fairly high-paid people think I’m wrong, people who work at an ad agency.
Of all of the things that people buy, a house is usually the most expensive. Next comes a vehicle. Unless you are buying used or something shipped from Seoul, the auto is going to put you in the realm of payment after payment. Consequently, one would think that there would have to be a pretty good reason before one selects, say, a brand-new Chevy Monte Carlo, which has a sticker price of on the order of $23,860 (assuming you opt for the SS version).
Of course, according to the aforementioned ad agency folks, the decision is rather straightforward for those pursuing the AC/DC lyrical lifestyle. In an ad that appears in the June 21 USA Today, on the page with the comprehensive weather information (and consequently a “premium position” in ad talk), there is an ad for a Monte Carlo. There is no headline. There are three art elements: (1) What appears to be a slip of paper onto which words seem to have been typed with a manual typewriter; (2) a photographic background showing the rear end of a Monte Carlo and an out-of-focus couple, she in a short black skirt and he in dark clothes; they seem to be in the entry way of a large hotel, possibly a Vegas casino, given the abundance of overhead lighting in the arrival area; (3) the Chevy logo and the words “We’ll Be There.” The text on the slip of paper is:
Party gonna happen at the union hall
Shakin’ to the rhythm ’til everybody fall
Pickin’ up my woman in my Chevrolet
Glory hallelujah gonna rock the night away
The area referencing the Chevy line is highlighted in red.
So let see. . . .AC/DC fan reads USA Today, “The Nation’s Newspaper.” Is interested in checking the weather in a far-flung city (e.g., Las Vegas; the reader is in, oh, Trenton, Michigan). Spies the back of a car that reminds him of what Dale Earnhardt, Jr., drives. Hmm, he thinks. Checks out the little slip of paper. Oh, yeah! Burns rubber to his local Chevy dealer. But then wonders about where he’s gonna get that woman to rock with. Damn. $23,860. And no particular place to go.
Last year, while doing his day job, GloNo’s sab questioned, in an uncharacteristic wry, mocking manner, the meaning of “American Luxury,” which was, at the time, the tagline that the Lincoln brand was using to describe its vehicles, which it hoped would roll out of showrooms at an active rate (“Hot damn! American luxury. Gotta get me one of them!”). Alas, the phrase is now passed. Officially today, the new line will break: “There are those who travel. And those who travel well.” Which sort of sounds like something that could be used to describe anything from a cruise line to a website offering five-star hotel rooms at a pittance. Even Dramamine could use it. (“There are those who travel vomiting. And those who travel well.”)
What is pertinent to note here is the fact that in announcing the new advertising campaign, music is cited as being an integral part of the message. That is, Ann Kalass, Lincoln Mercury marketing communication manager, says, “This is an opportune time to communicate the excitement at Lincoln, and demonstrate how the luxury cues in our vehicles set our brand apart from the competition. Our signature music, Lincoln Beat, sets an energetic and engaging tone for the Lincoln brand, and in all our creative, the product is the hero.” I wonder where you learn to make up lines like that. “The product is the hero”?
Without going in to some of the patent silliness of the spots (e.g., Dennis Hopper climbing out of a Town Car at a movie premiere: Yes, while Hopper may be in the Town Car demographic (he’ll be 66 next month), only a SoCal creative would imagine that the star of Super Mario Brothers and Waterworld—oh, yeah, I’m sure I’m supposed to cite True Romance and Blue Velvet to assure his credentials—is the sort of person whom AARP members would closely associate with), it is worth noting, still once again, that music is something that those who are trying to appeal to our disposable income recognize as being vital. The Siren’s Song, as it were. Sure, powered running boards on an SUV may be clever, but the use of what’s called “powerful music” is meant to drive it home. Or, that is, to help persuade you to drive it home.
For me, it’s all about Truckville.
In our on-going quest to keep you advised of the intersection between commerce and music, we have discovered the following. But first a bit of back-story is required.
The Ka in question is a small car from Ford that’s available in the European market, a car that some U.S. auto writers rhapsodize about and pine for in a domestic driveway. The Ka is comparatively compact; it would be nothing more than a blip in the rearview mirror of the sport utes that rule the roads on this side of the Atlantic.
The Kylie in question is Kylie Minogue, an Australian pop sweet tart who is popular in her homeland as well as in Europe; she received an award for being the “Best Selling Australian Artist” at the recent World Music Awards. Kylie is comparatively invisible in the U.S.; she is nothing more than a blip in the rearview mirror of the likes of Britney, who rule the airwaves on this side of the Atlantic.
The quote comes from Earl Hesterberg, Ford of Europe’s vp for Marketing, Sales, and Service:
“StreetKa and Kylie have a lot in common—they are both small, beautiful and stylish.”
I’ll bet this is exactly what Ms. Minogue is looking for: comparison to a car. Kylie, a former soap opera actress, plays off of her curves in a way that even vehicles designed by Pininfarina can only make weak gestures toward. I suppose that what would be more disturbing to her would be if she was being sponsored by the purveyor of major home appliances; while there is a certain intrinsic sexuality related to some vehicles, the notion of a side-by-side refrigerator just doesn’t have the same resonance (e.g., they are both white, straight and resistant to fingerprints).
(StreetKa is one of the sponsors of her Euro tour. Hesterberg observed, “Kylie is universally popular, especially so with young single people who are resistant to more traditional avenues of marketing communication.” That sentence is resistant to semiotic analysis.)
Word on the street is that when Cadillac prepares to launch its SRX, which is a variant of a sport utility vehicle that’s somewhat smaller than an Escalade, it will be doing so with the background music of a rock dinosaur—I mean dynasty—of day’s past: Led Zeppelin. I suspect that the irony of the name of that band in the context of Cadillac is lost on the people who made the selection. Either that, or they are amusingly subversive. The tune that they’ve culled is Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” Which makes me wonder more about the potential subversion, given that the tune opens:
“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled”
Which is certainly true of Cadillac, but would they admit it?
Of course, the folks at the automaker are feeling pretty good. After all, JLo has sung about the Escalade (her love may not cost a thing, but it will set you back in excess of $50K for those wheels), and as Mark LaNeve, Cadillac general manager recently stated, “When I first started at Cadillac 21 years ago, Guy Lombardo was about as ‘hip’ as we got. Now we’re getting ‘heavy unpaid rotation’ on MTV and the players’ parking lots of many NBA and NFL stadiums look like Escalade showrooms.”
Now for a historic footnote: Guy Lombardo was a big band leader who began his career in 1924. Guy Lombardo died in 1977. Which means, I suppose, that when LaNeve started at Cadillac in 1980 or ’81, there was a dead guy who was quintessentially Cadillac hip.
Of course, given that the first verse of “Rock and Roll” ends,
“Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time”
maybe that’s right.