Advertisers love using music to tell people in specific demographics to pay attention. They are hoping that your positive feelings about a certain song will trigger your desire for a cheeseburger, new car, or telephone. However, there seems to be a generational divide between who welcomes these references and who cringes. Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are on the side of those who hate hearing their favorite songs in ads for Buick, Phizer, and Kraft, for example. Back in the day, Generation X was horrified by being marketed to – let alone seeing their heroes lend their songs to television commercials. But younger generations have no such qualms. Millennials and Generation Y seem more amused about the use of popular music in TV commercials. (Many even have their own YouTube channels inviting potential sponsors to please, please exploit their music or art!) But for us old fogeys, there is nothing worse on TV than the moment when a seminal song in a person’s life is used to sell something. Here are eight of the grossest offenders.
“Come to My Window” by… Applebee’s
“Come to My Window” was not just a transcendent moment for Melissa Etheridge, it was a rousing lesbian anthem at a crucial cultural time for LGBT rights. As the first single off of the groundbreaking album, Yes I Am, Etheridge not only showed that she was not afraid to rock, she answered a big question about her sexuality with a resounding Yes. I. Am. In doing so, she proved that not only could an out artist make money in the music business, she could be on mainstream radio and sell-out giant stadiums in the process.
Applebee’s looked at this and thought “hey, but Come to My Window could mean the takeout window. Right? Right?” WRONG.
But Applebee’s wants you to know that all that important queer stuff pales in comparison to the exciting introduction of the Applebee’s To Go Window, where you can get artichoke dip, mozzarella sticks, hot wings, cheeseburgers, steaks and all other 101 menu items on. the. go! The Applebee’s commercial slyly acknowledges the original video, which featured red hot Juliette Lewis assuring us all that hell yes she WOULD climb through our windows.
But the Applebee’s commercial lady has different needs. This woman is just leaving the mall after a long day of shopping and then suddenly looks down at her phone. Is she thinking of climbing through some sexy woman’s window? No. What she needs now is apparently not a hot night of lady love – it’s to hotfoot it over to the Applebee’s To Go Window for some take-home mozzarella sticks, baby!
Applebee’s wasn’t done winking at the song yet. They have this Mall Shopping Lady stop in the pouring rain, only to be greeting by another smiling woman – an Applebee’s employee – with the tagline “We Bring It To Your Car.” Nothing could be more depressing, or as dumb.
“Blister in the Sun” by… Wendy’s
Okay Generation X. Prepare to rage… again. “Blister in the Sun” is about self love. The janggly, nervous, slightly punk and slightly twee sounds convey the excitement of the very young discovering something very cool about their bodies. “Big hands I know you’re the one,” am I right?
Okay so it’s true that we may over-value this particular song. But if you have ever been in a club or at a party or in a bar and witnessed the reaction to the opening guitar licks of “Blister in the Sun,” you’ll know it was perverse to sell this song to Wendy’s as an ode to a big hamburger. Violent Femmes lead singer Gordon Gano enraged his bandmates by selling the license to the song. Gano is a vegetarian, but he also acquired a taste for green – as in dinero – as he hit middle age. Bassist Brian Ritchie had some feelings about this: “When you see dubious, or in this case disgusting, uses of our music you can thank the greed, insensitivity and poor taste of Gordon Gano.” Ritchie even sued Gano over it and refused to reunite the band for a nostalgia greed tour back in 2013.
Oh wait — what’s that you say? The band reunited in 2016 anyway? It just goes to show you that the lure of the now-lucrative nostalgia circuit always wins in the end. Big bucks I know you’re the one.
“I Am Woman” by… Burger King
In 2006, Burger King thought that a tongue-in-cheek version of 70’s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” would highlight the deliciousness of its new humongous Texas Double Whopper sandwich. The ad shows men marching down the street, setting fire to their underwear, complaining about tofu and quiche and singing a version of Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit: “I am man, I am incorrigible, and I’m way too hungry to settle for chick food.”
The eventual slogan comes during the voice-over and it says “eat like a man, man.” The I-Am-Man, Therefore-I-Meat campaign went over well. The Double Whopper is still around, offering men 1,040 calories and 59% fat.
“Be My Baby” by… Cialis
The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is one of the most legendary songs in the history of pop music. It marked the first time that producer Phil Spector recorded with an orchestra, leading to the creation of his famous “wall of sound” that influenced five generations of pop music. It was the first time that a singer – Ronnie Spector – spent three days in the studio, rather than three minutes, laying down a vocal track, a bit of vocal perfectionism which would bone repeated by generations of divas. And the backing band turned out to be a Who’s Who of soon-to-be-famous musicians: a teenager Cher was on backup vocals, along with Sonny Bono and Darlene Love, plus Leon Russell on keyboards. Brian Wilson called the song his “greatest inspiration” and generations of musicians have been inspired by its drum intro and the reprise.
But this gorgeous piece of pop music was deployed by Big Pharma back in 2005, for a Super Bowl ad for Cialis. At the time, Cialis was trying to get market share away from Viagra, which had an enormous hit with Bob Dole getting turned on for Britney Spears. (Yes, that really happened. It, too was a Super Bowl ad that the NFL was totally cool with). Anyway, the Cialis commercial features older couples getting frisky while Ronnie sings “be my little baby.” You know the type, you see them in all the ED commercials: fit, thin, the men with grey hair but the women about 10 years their junior just to keep this within the realm of fantasy. They hit the beach for a walk, and then they frolic while wearing sweet sweaters in a tastefully decorated hotel room. Oh, oh, oh, oh noooo!
“Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty)” by… Fidelity Investments
It’s not like “Shake your booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band is an important song in music history, but its 70’s vibes are all about, well… shaking your booty. That’s why it was so jarring to see the rollicking song used by the very sexy financial industry. Fidelity Investments was probably looking to change your perception of high finance. Less than a decade later, the financial industry crashed the entire global economy – and what could be sexier than that? Perhaps Cialis xould have put “Shake Shake Shake (Shake Your Booty)” to better use.
“Lust for Life” by… Royal Caribbean
Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” is a banger, and Royal Caribbean evidently thought it meshed well with its late-middle aged demo who want to have exciting times aboard its all-inclusive cruise lines. The biggest joke about this one is of course that Iggy was writing about sex, drugs and booze:
Here comes Johnny Yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And a flesh machine
He’s gonna do another strip tease
Unless Royal Caribbean really is selling sex, drugs, and alcohol rather than gut-busting buffets, this is a ridiculous commercial. I guess they’re saying
Here comes Johnny Yen, again
With the buffet and the pool
And reading with his wife
Later he’s gonna do another zip line!
How about no.
“Mercedes Benz” by… Mercedes-Benz
What could be wrong with Mercedes Benz using a Janis Joplin song that is literally about their product? Plenty. Joplin’s song was about the empty void of consumerism. The first verse plaintively asks “lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” The second verse turns its attention to a color TV, as in “Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me / I wait for delivery each day until three.” By the third verse, Joplin is pining just for a night on the town, which is also out of reach for the working class. The message is that our focus on amassing worldly goods and status symbols will not make us happy.
A lot of Baby Boomers were offended when this commercial came out in the mid-1990’s. It wasn’t just the death of Janis Joplin that they were mourning; it was the death of 1960’s idealism. Of course many of the Boomers had long ago shed their hippy-going ways, with some even becoming the kind of people who use the excess money from their Fidelity Investments to pack Cialis to take on their Royal Caribbean cruise, so perhaps their offense is rooted in the way it reminds them of how they betrayed their own youthful principles. But that’s just a guess. Probably way (not very) off base.
“Stuck in the Middle With You” by… Fruit of the Loom
It’s not so much that “Stuck in the Middle With You” is a classic as it is that no one likes to think about their underwear getting stuck in their nether regions that makes this such a groaner of a pairing. In this 1996 commercial by Fruit of the Loom, women at the clothesline watch as pairs of panties bob along in the wind, followed by a perfectly still pair of white briefs. The tagline? “With more material in the seat, our underwear always stays comfortably in place. Sorry guys.” And that was enough for the advertising industry to bestow the ad agency responsible for it with dozens of awards. Really guys?