Musically speaking, Gap has been and continues to be the coolest brand in the advertising game and there isn’t a close second. Say what you want about their clothes—too khaki, too preppy, too blue, too normal, whatever—the way they’ve used music and musicians in their ads is outstanding.
Other brands use music/musicians and some do it well—like Apple. The iPod ads that made The Fratellis popular (the band, not the family in The Goonies) and Feist a household name were great. But they were promoting a music-playing device. So they should use music, they have to be trendy, they need to be cool and they haven’t done it as well as Gap. Nobody has.
Why is this remarkable? First, because Gap is a clothing brand and all clothing brands try to be: sexy, pretentious, rich, chic, practical, functional and and/or appealing. But Gap has a lock down on the trickiest—universal coolness. Secondly, musicians don’t offer up their tunes lightly. Sigur Ros refuses to let brands use their sound but some still try. For instance: Sony, Buick, and Orange have been called out for “borrowing heavily” from Jonsi and company. And Tom Waits, in an interview with NPR, said this about selling his songs to ads: “I’d rather have a hot lead enema. I hate it. I saw a commercial for toilet paper, and they were using “Let the Good Times Roll,” you know? It’s like, ‘Man, don’t do that.’” And later in the interview Waits had this to say, “You know, that’s the thing with tunes is that, you know, once you’ve heard them over time and they’ve developed a lot of meaning in your personal life, you know, and there’s things that have happened and that song has been the soundtrack for in some way. You know, you don’t want to see it used as selling underwear or diapers.” It’s easy to see his point.
Some brands beat you to death with hokey hooks and dopey lines. For instance: “Like a Rock.” How many times did the Bob Seger song try to handcuff toughness to Chevy trucks? Today Bob has been replaced by Kid Rock who strains, “I was born free,” every 15 minutes on every TV channel in America—birth + freedom = Chevy trucks? Does our freedom (from birth) have a direct correlation with buying a Chevrolet? Maybe Bob and Kid needed the money but that’s not likely. They’re not Indie artists. Speaking of Indie bands, they gladly sell their stuff to ad agencies for exposure and to get paid. Which does make sense.
How has Gap done it better? For one, they understand the power of variety. Here is a semi-complete list of musicians to appear in their ads: Pharell, Madonna, NAS, Rufus Wainwright, Missy Elliot, Nikka Costa, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Luscious Jackson, Keith Urban, Daft Punk, Junior Brown, Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams, Jason Mraz, John Legend, Brandon Boyd, Joss Stone, Alanis Morissette, Michelle Williams, Zooey Deschanel, Trey Songz, Flo Rida, Scarlett Johanson, Common, Usher, The Avett Brothers, Low, LL Cool J, Alexa Ray Joel, Dhani Harrison and Will Ferrell spoofing Neil Diamond. Since the 1990’s they’ve used familiar faces and music from every genre to create a sticky bond between a person’s love of music and their identification with what they wear. They’ve bridged the gap from country to hip-hop to indie to classic rock in a meaningful, flawless way.
When I asked a friend what she thought about Gap ads she lit up. “Oh, that one holiday ad with Rufus Wainwright was amazing.” The mental connection was immediate. Another friend recalled the Daft Punk, Juliette Lewis combination with rivaled enthusiasm. And that’s just two. More recently Gap cut ads featuring the children of George Harrison and Billy Joel. Seems odd because how many people know who Dhani Harrison or Alexa Ray Joel? But it’s genius. Everyone knows The Beatles. Everyone knows Billy Joel. They’re titans. And the kids, Dhani and Alexa, are talented, attractive and they look great in denim while performing their father’s songs. Again, the mental connection was created and humans everywhere, of all ages, were engaged. It’s not often that a brand can bridge a gap that size but Gap can. They have before and they’ll do it again.
To overstate it, one would say Gap has hit home runs in their ads for the past 20 years. That’s probably not true. To say the least, Gap has been consistent. And to be honest, they’ve done a really good job at pairing music with the clothing they put on their shelves. Gap doesn’t sell sex. They sell cool. Gap isn’t pretentious. They’re smart. Gap isn’t funny. But they make us smile with perfect pairings of sight and sound. And that’s a big reason why we keep falling in.