The Genre of Commercials - Genre Week


Skrillex performing at the Cisco Ottowa Bluesfest. Photo by Brennan Schnell.

The first ever radio jingle aired on Christmas Eve, 1923. The commercial was produced by General Mills and promoted their now iconic cereal, “Wheaties.” However, the pitch didn’t have any famous athlete ask the audience: “Have you had your Wheaties today?” Instead, it featured the  “Wheaties Quartet” asking listeners in four-part harmony, “Have you tried Wheaties?” Songs, being pleasant to listen to and easy to remember, have continued to be an integral part of marketing infrastructure even as commercials have expanded to television and the Internet. Don’t believe me? Have you ever had the Chili’s “I want my babyback, babyback, babyback…” jingle stuck in your head? Now you do.

While music in advertising remains a popular strategy, the styles and genres of that music have changed dramatically. Even in the time between now and when that Chili’s commercial first aired, so much is different: N*SYNC is no longer, and one of its members had a stellar solo career that he woefully abandoned for the glitz of Hollywood. We’re looking at you Justin.

On the music front, the tunes heard in commercials today are a far cry from a four man quartet from the 1920’s politely asking if we’ve tried their product. While singing a song about the product might have enticed consumers before, now audiences don’t want to feel as though they’re being hit over the head with a message, unless that message is the number to call for a great deal on digital cable service. What is in high demand now is the desire to be entertained as well as informed. Consumers would prefer that their commercial-watching experience feel like they’re watching a music video that happens to have the product featured in a less conspicuous and more stylish way.

Take, for example, a commercial for the HD HERO camera from the company


Not a word about the product is sung or spoken, and instead, the song “Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites” by the popular dubstep artist, Skrillex, is a blaring soundtrack to the kayaking adventure displayed onscreen. The video caption on YouTube does, however, mention that the entire commercial was shot using the HD camera advertised in the segment. The result is an admittedly epic video that feels less like an ad for a camera and more like music video or adventure segment fort the Discovery Channel.

If popular music genres are good for successful ad campaigns, then are successful ad campaigns good for popular music genres? Especially when a single song comes to represent an entire genre, like the single from Skrillex does for dubstep, there are dangers that come with the added exposure of a national, or sometimes international, ad campaign. Sure, Skrillex must enjoy the royalties he gets paid every time the commercial airs, but he runs the risk of consumers getting sick of hearing his song over and over again in between episodes of The Office and Whitney. Not to mention, he runs the risk of his more devout fan base questioning him for “selling out” by endorsing a name brand corporation.

Surf pop and lo-fi artists are no strangers to the world of television-chic, either. Earlier this year, Best Coast’s song “When I’m With You” from their 2010 album Crazy for You matched the laid-back ease of summer for a Payless shoe commercial, while the Smith Westerns’ song, “Weekend”, provided ambiance for a Tommy Hilfiger ad. Yet, the only apparent correlation between that particular song and Hilfiger’s brand must have been the fact that the commercial depicts people enjoying their weekend. Other than that, when was the last time you saw a fan of the Smith Westerns dressed in his finest Tommy Hilfiger attire? Only hip hop artists like Snoop Dogg really made that look work. While any hipster worth his salt can appreciate the irony of Snoop ricking his freshest Hilfiger sweatshirt, that was back in the 90s when he could add “-izzle” to every other word and still be cool.

Dubstep, surf pop, hip hop – they all fall somewhere along the sickening pendulum of popularity and coolness, and new genres contemplating the jump from underground shows to national ad campaigns especially must be wary of the delicate balance between the two. In an age when how hip you are as an artist depends on how exclusive the appeal of your work is, never has a nationally branded commercial been as good for your cred as it surely is for your bank account.

Written by: Mary Kate Polanin