I heard something on TV recently that continues to disturb me today. It wasn’t anything about the country’s astounding deficit or the situation in Afghanistan (though I find both of those things quite disturbing). Instead, it was one of my current favorite songs, “Janglin’” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, being played during a car commercial. Terrific, I thought. Now I can’t listen to that without thinking of the Ford Fiesta.
Musicians benefit from the increased exposure that being featured in such commercials bring, but it comes with a cost. Not only will they be called sellouts, but their songs will forever be associated with advertisements for cars, cruises, and cookies. These songs are still great on their own, but after getting so much screen time, the listening experience is, well, somewhat compromised.
“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone
Toyota featured this song in so many of its advertisements that I couldn’t even remember how the rest of the song goes beyond “I am everyday people” until I looked it up online. Turns out, the song has more meaning than just the lessons you’ve learned behind the wheel of your new Camry.
“1, 2, 3, 4,” Feist
It’s impossible to hear this song without picturing dozens of people dancing and clapping their hands in a cheerful array of colors. It’ll inspire you to get up and dance, too—all the way to the Apple store.
“Pink Moon,” Nick Drake
Hands down, this is one of the best commercials ever made. It really does make you want to take a long, moonlit drive to nowhere in particular with Nick Drake’s soothing voice as your copilot. I suppose there are worse images a song from a commercial could evoke.
Not that “Unbelievable” is the best song in the world, but it is catchy and fun. However, if you’ve ever seen the Kraft “Crumbelievable” commercial, you’ve no doubt found yourself replacing the line “Your purple prose just gives you away” with “That big cheese taste that blows you away.”
“Gravity Rides Everything,” Modest Mouse
Like the Nick Drake song, “Gravity Rides Everything” is perfect for a car commercial. I can’t fault Nissan for its choice, even if one of Modest Mouse’s best songs is now synonymous with a minivan. And it’s to the band’s credit that they manage to give something that unhip a cool, indie vibe.
“Rock and Roll,” Led Zeppelin
Who would’ve guessed that Robert Plant’s famous voice would someday urge us toward the open road in a Cadillac, of all things? It’s an odd pairing, to say the least, but the association’s forever cemented in many people’s minds.
“Such Great Heights,” Iron and Wine
This sweet, sleepy cover of the Postal Service hit is used as the soundtrack for a rather psychedelic homage to the many colors in a bag of M&Ms. The ad takes a sinister turn near the end when a red M&M is plucked out of the rainbow and promptly eaten. It brings a whole new, creepy meaning to the line “They will see us waving from such great heights.”
“Don’t You Want Me,” Human League
Talk about creepy—this is one of the most disturbing commercials I’ve seen in a long time. Even so, whenever I hear this song, I can’t help but picture chocolate chip cookies singing it joyfully … right before a hungry human’s giant hand grabs them.
“Every Day Is a Winding Road,” Sheryl Crow
There’s no better song for a road trip mix than Sheryl Crow’s ’90s hit—you listen to it and imagine yourself driving on a highway that runs alongside the ocean. But after this ad ran a million times, the car I picture is almost always a Subaru Outback. At least that’s not as bad as a minivan.
Many of these tunes will always have a special place in their fans’ hearts. The fact that they’re in commercials doesn’t make them terrible, per se (although that “Crumbelievable” one sure cuts it close), but it does affect how we experience the songs themselves. Either way, I’m still watching the “Don’t You Want Me” video on YouTube when I need an early-’80s fix. The only difference now is that I might suddenly crave a chocolate chip cookie while I listen.