What’s your reaction when one of your favorite songs, by one of your favorite brands, pops up in a commercial for a brand you may or may not love? Do you groan, annoyed that some hard rocking rebel or cutting-edge artist has sold the rights to the song for advertising purposes? Or do you smile, pleased to hear your preferred song, and thus feel more affection for the brand being advertised? Obviously, marketers hope that your reaction is the latter one, but in many cases, consumers express attitudes more in line with the former.

Lo-res_1557R-367146-SThe hits keep coming though. During the most recent Super Bowl, Acura relied on Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” to introduce the latest model of its NSX sports car. Other advertisers use cover versions of popular songs or seek out relatively unknown artists with a cool sound to add an appropriate vibe to their marketing communications. The various options come with different costs: Licensing a popular song by a well-known musician can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single use with a massive audience, like a Super Bowl commercial. If the brand chooses to use the song in an extended campaign, the licensing costs can easily reach millions. Cover versions of popular songs generally are more affordable, though the song writer still earns licensing fees. Most affordable of all is new music by unfamiliar artists, because many of these musicians are happy mainly for the exposure that the advertising campaign offers them. As the music industry becomes increasingly challenging, such benefits, together with the promise of long-term residual income, make the licensing of music a popular and compelling option for struggling (or not so struggling) artists.

But choosing the right song for a marketing campaign involves more than considering the price. If the tone of the song does not match the marketing context, it can create cognitive dissonance. Thus for example, using “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the melancholy Jim Croce song about fathers and sons that makes virtually every listener cry, might not have been the best choice for a Nissan advertisement. Furthermore, reactions to songs are intensely personal, which makes it difficult for marketers to predict consumers’ reactions. Many people obviously love Van Halen, but there are those for whom the sound of David Lee Roth’s voice is deeply annoying. A song might remind an individual listener of a particularly good or particularly bad time in his or her life, with parallel effects on the consumer’s perception of the product being advertised with that song. So will the effect be wonderful, or will it be terrible, and how are marketers to predict the answer in advance?

Discussion Question:

  1. Why is using popular music in advertising considered a high-risk but also a potentially high-return strategy?

Source: Michael McCarthy, “Acura Taps Van Halen for a Hard-Driving Super Bowl Commercial,” The New York Times, January 28, 2016