Why is music so powerful in TV and advertising? Well, can you imagine a Christmas ad without any music? Unthinkable, right? Music touches our emotions in a different way from visuals alone – whether it’s a song that you already know and love, combined with a scene that moves you, or a track used in a completely different way.
It could be something you’ve never heard before, which becomes indelibly linked with a story or character. Something used in such a quirky way that it’s instantly memorable, and you’re desperate for a repeat viewing. So, how do music supervisors and creatives best use music for television and commercials?
Music in Advertising
Kantar reports that 84% of the ads they test globally have music. Why is music used in TV commercials? Well, it makes it way harder to connect with your audience on an emotional level if you omit music in commercials, for one.
Kantar’s research found, ‘a strong relationship between consumers who enjoy the music in an ad, and those who feel an emotional connection through our “feel-good” metric. Our Link database shows a 63-point increase in the average feel-good factor between those who enjoyed the music most and those who didn’t enjoy it.
Further, when people enjoy the music in the ad, we see a 20-point increase in the average involvement score when the music is also well-known.’
This point about using well-known music can be key for a brand – when a track can significantly enhance the appeal to the target audience, it’s important to ensure they know it, and that it’s culturally relevant to them. This is especially the case for Gen Z, who are also ‘more receptive to advertising on music platforms.’
Heinz went particularly meta in this respect – when ketchup superfan Ed Sheeran got in touch, suggesting that they make an ad based on an experience he had at a fancy restaurant, the brand were only too keen to cement their relationship and take a message direct to his millions of fans that no meal is complete without Heinz Ketchup:
Although, it being a fancy restaurant, it’s piano music that plays in the background, rather than one of Ed’s own songs in this instance.
Music also has the power to add dramatic effect and set a tone – IKEA’s ‘The Troll’ is a masterclass in setting up expectations with ominous music at the start, which then moves into a more twinkly, magical mood as a small boy wants to help the Troll make his under-bridge lair more homely and happy.
IKEA’s Head of Marketing, Johanna Andren, revealed that, ‘the build is deliberate and cinematic to pique interest, and the musical score is key to tying the whole production together. The dramatic music building up from dark and slightly scary to happier in the end is a strong component.’ In an ad with no dialogue, it’s key to have this musical progression to steer the audience through the story and emotions. If you mute the soundtrack, you can still follow the storytelling, but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact.
And when you’ve only got 30 seconds to tell a story, the music can get you at least halfway there.
Get Your Brand Noticed
Music in commercials can be a vital element in getting your brand noticed and building a brand image. ‘Sonic branding’, such as McDonald’s or Intel Inside’s jingles or audio logos, act as a cue and a shortcut when they’re used frequently.
McDonald’s ‘Raise Your Arches’ ad is also a brilliant use of Swiss electronic duo Yello’s ‘Oh Yeah’, creating an ad that relies on choreography and close editing to the music to create the humour, and a spot that’s instantly memorable:
The track was originally released in 1985, proving that you don’t have to use a recently released song for a successful commercial. But as it was also used for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for film fans, there’s a built-in nostalgia for the idea of bunking off to do something fun.
Our Top 5 Uses of Music in Advertising
Levi 501s – ‘Laundrette’
For those of us of a certain age (ahem), Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard it on the Grapevine’ is forever synonymous with a handsome man sitting in his boxer shorts, waiting for his jeans wash to finish its cycle. It was 1985 and Levi’s were a heritage brand – and not in a good way. The jeans-makers had been going since the 1850s and were becoming a proper ‘dad brand’.
BBH were tasked with coming up with the campaign to revive them. Research showed that the target audience for Levi 501s (15–19-year-olds) loved 50s and 60s US culture: James Dean, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke. Thus, the 50s-set ad showing model Nick Kamen stripping to his boxers in a launderette, soundtracked by Marvin Gaye, watched by both outraged and intrigued fellow customers.
Not only did it propel ‘Grapevine’ straight into the Top 10, but it kick-started a whole movement in advertising. ‘Integrated Marketing’ meant a single in the charts alongside your ad on the TV – plus a 501 logo on the record sleeve.
Sales of 501s shot up by an eye-watering 800% in the wake of the ad and by 1987, sales of Levi’s jeans were reported to be 20 times what they had been just three years earlier. Levi’s continued to use classic songs during the late 80s – Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ was originally released in 1955:
And Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ dates back to 1966.
Eventually, the brand moved onto modern tracks, but by unknown bands – and the hits kept coming. ‘Creek’, a 1994 black and white epic that looked as though it’d been shot by Ansel Adams, launched Scottish grunge band Stiltskin, with its use of ‘Inside’ and its addictive riff.
Over the next few years, Levi’s witty, often provocative ads inverted the relationship between music and advertising, with everyone from Babylon Zoo to a pre-Fatboy Slim Norman Cook, Smoke City and Mr Oizo’s ‘Flat Eric’ scoring major chart successes owing to being featured. BBH were using unknown artists as a way to say, ‘We’re discovering music, we’re ahead of fashion.’
Cadbury – ‘Gorilla’
Proving that you don’t need a huge budget to make an ad that everyone talks about was Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’, created by Fallon, which generated over 10 million YouTube views and spawned numerous spoofs. After years of illustrating Cadbury’s by pouring out glasses of milk, this certainly marked a departure: a man in a gorilla suit, playing the drums to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ against a (brand) purple background.
(And no, the man in the suit isn’t actually Phil Collins.)
Marketing’s editor Rachel Barnes said, ‘British people love surreal humour and every element of the Cadbury Gorilla oozes with it. Nothing about it makes sense, but it’s a magical piece of advertising that took the TV-viewing public by surprise.’
Phil Rumbol, the former Cadbury’s marketing boss behind the ad, added, ‘I think its enduring appeal lies in the fact it’s not telling people a message, it evokes a feeling - and it’s, therefore, something people enjoy over and over, which proves the impact of emotion, rather than product-led, ads.’
It’s an iconic use of music – surely every time you hear that drum solo now, you’re imagining a gorilla with a set of drumsticks, instead of Mr Collins?
Guinness – ‘Surfer’ (1999)
Ad agency AMV BBDO needed to reboot Guinness’s image. At the tail end of the 90s, it was seen as an old man’s drink. Creatives Tom Carty and Walter Campbell were adamant that a feature that might be a negative - the length of time that Guinness took to pour - was actually key to its experience. Campbell observed his Guinness-drinking friends, ‘would engage, looking at the pint being poured. I’d see how their imagination was firing at the thought of it.’
The two found a shot of a Hawaiian surfer looking out to sea, which kick-started their idea of a surfer waiting patiently for the perfect wave, together with a painting from 1893 by Walter Crane called ‘Neptune’s Horses’. They found their surfer star, believe it or not, sleeping under a palm tree in Hawaii; the team spent eight days filming in the waves, followed by a further three days of shooting Lipizzaner horses jumping over fences.
The finishing touch was a soundtrack that sounds like the blood pounding inside the surfer’s head: Leftfield’s ‘Phat Planet’.
The ad is the perfect synthesis of creative ideas, stunning visuals, a slightly surreal script referencing Moby Dick, that unrelenting soundtrack (but with an intriguing section where the sound drops out completely) and an enduring tagline: ‘Here’s to waiting’. And of course the black and white is a subliminal nod to the drink. It was an ad that won a slew of awards, including two British D&AD Gold awards, the only double gold for 40 years, and Adland still regularly votes it as the best ad ever made.
Virgin Atlantic – ‘I Am What I Am’
Virgin Atlantic championed diversity in this 2022 ad, which was set to a soaring and soulful rendition of the gay anthem ‘I Am What I Am’. Originally made famous as a disco hit by Gloria Gaynor, the track was reinterpreted by jazz/soul artist Lady Blackbird for this ad.
The song was originally introduced in the Broadway musical, La Cage Aux Folles. In the show, drag queen Albin is disinvited from his own son’s wedding. Broadway composer Jerry Herman took the line from a draft of the speech that said, ‘I am what I am and there’s nothing I can do’, and wrote the killer first act closer. As the Guardian pointed out, ‘Albin’s big number begins by reminding himself that he’s fought to establish his own identity; by the song’s end, he’s insisting that we tell the world our own truths.’
In 2017, a flash mob sang ‘I Am What I Am’ in Sydney after Australia voted to support same-sex marriage and in 2012 it made an appearance in the opening ceremony for London’s Paralympics.
Foregrounding the LGBTQ+ community, the Virgin Atlantic spot invites viewers to ‘see the world differently’ with a cast that includes a fabulously glittery air steward, a gay couple and a female pilot.
Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Shai Weiss, explained the thinking behind the ad: ‘At the core of our business is the understanding that every one of our people can be themselves at work and that they belong. They truly are the thing that sets us apart and the reason customers choose to fly with us.
We know that the touchpoints that matter most and the experiences that differentiate Virgin Atlantic, are driven by our people and that’s why it was so important they’re at the heart of this campaign.’
Using the song trades both on its lyrics, and its history as an anthem of defiance that celebrates individuality.
John Lewis Christmas Ad
Christmas ads are almost a genre of their own within advertising, and we couldn’t have a Top five without mentioning the GOAT of festive ads that use music to expertly amp up their storytelling: John Lewis. After a partnership of 14 years, John Lewis finally parted company with creative agency Adam&EveDDB in February of 2023.
The two created a winning formula of emotional storytelling and recognisable soundtracks for a plethora of memorable ad campaigns. Many column inches were dedicated to each year’s ad, its themes and its track choices and for quite a sizeable number of people, the release of the annual John Lewis ad has come to herald ‘the start of Christmas’. As Nicola Wood, the creative director of Ogilvy UK said to The Drum, ‘just like the Grinch, John Lewis stole Christmas. Year after year. Triumph after triumph. It became our Super Bowl.’
From telling Elton John’s story of receiving a piano as a child to Monty the Penguin, Excitable Edgar the fire-breathing dragon, the Bear and the Hare to an alien girl, Moz the Monster, a lonely man on the moon and last year’s heart-tugging ‘The Beginner’, the John Lewis Christmas ads have been miniature works of art, seemingly precision-tooled to illustrate the phrase, ‘No, you’re crying’.
When interviewed by The Drum, the consensus from industry insiders on the best of the bunch was ‘The Long Wait’, from way back in 2011, featuring Slow Moving Millie’s cover of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’.
Dylan Davenport, executive vice-president at Weber Shandwick, said it was, ‘The first with a story that took you on a true journey. It was the first where the re-imagined music chimed perfectly with the narrative. The first that gave a proper emotional rug pull at the end. The first that brought a lump to my throat.’
Simon Richings, executive creative director at We Are Social, added, ‘There’s a gentle plinky-plonky cover of a great Smiths song (before that treatment became over-familiar), a lovely performance from the boy impatient for Christmas Day and a brilliant rug-pull that transforms the assumed selfish kid into an angel (I’m not crying, you’re crying). Best of all, it ended with a good, old-fashioned promise of what John Lewis had for you in store: gifts you can’t wait to give. The other famous films may have looked better or had stories that were even more heart-warming. But this one’s by far the best ad.’
5 Examples of How Powerful Music Has Been in TV Shows
A carefully-curated soundtrack can be a key criteria for making a great TV series – hence why there’s now an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Music Composition for a Series’. If you’ve ever Shazammed a song whilst watching a show and added it to your playlist, you know how impactful music can be. Here’s our pick of the best songs from television shows that created pitch-perfect scenes.
Stranger Things – ‘Running Up That Hill’
Music is literally a life saver for one of the characters, Max (Sadie Sink) in season four of Stranger Things. Dragged into The Upside Down – the terrifying world under the town of Hawkins – by the season’s big bad, Vecna, Max’s friends realise that music might be the key to breaking her out of a potentially fatal trance.
And luckily, they know exactly what her favourite track is: ‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush, which they blast through her Walkman’s headphones.
Why did Nora Felder, the series’ music supervisor, choose this particular track?
She told Variety that Stranger Things’ showrunners the Duffer brothers tasked her with finding a song that chimed with what Max was going through and the lyrics were particularly apt – Max is dealing with a world of grief and guilt surrounding her half-brother Billy’s death at the end of Season 3.
She revealed that, ‘In the face of Max’s painful isolation and alienation from others, a “deal with God” could heart-wrenchingly reflect Max’s implicit belief that only a miracle of unlikely understanding and show of support could help her climb the hills of life before her.
In Max’s situation, the need for a “deal with God” can perhaps be metaphorically understood as a desperate cry for love — to manifest the extraordinary understanding and support Max needed while feeling so painfully alone.’
Planet Earth II
Documentaries can use music to enhance key sequences, launching them into ‘modern classics’ status. For one of the best examples, look no further than Planet Earth II’s most celebrated sequence. Baby iguanas have to run the gauntlet across a sandy beach to the safety of the rocks, whilst chased by a cascade of beady-eyed, super-fast racer snakes.
The final iguana’s near-miraculous escape is soundtracked by blockbuster supremo and Oscar-winner Hans Zimmer, who expertly ramps up the tension. When it came to writing the music for it, Zimmer said, ‘Imagine you’re a Hollywood composer, and so you know a lot of Hollywood directors who are all doing their car chases and whatever. Nobody ever had as exciting a chase, as exciting footage, as that. It’s incredibly emotional stuff. All the music is trying to do is shine an additional light onto things. Make it something that gets under your skin.’
Six Feet Under – ‘Breathe Me’
Sia wasn’t the megastar that she is now when Six Feet Under concluded its five-year run with ‘Breathe Me’ in 2005. The emotional, seven-minute montage flashed forward to take us through all the lead characters’ deaths, giving fans a chance to say goodbye to beloved characters in a fulfilling way and providing a satisfying arc.
As Claire Fisher drives away, the landscape shifts as time stretches out and we see how David, Keith, Brenda, Ruth and Federico all end up meeting their ends. The use of ‘Breathe Me’ kickstarted it as the go-to track for heart-wrenching sequences, from Misfits to Veronica Mars and Orange is the New Black.
But Six Feet Under got there first – and for many, it’s been hailed as ‘the most satisfying TV finale of all time’. Even Lauren Ambrose, who played Claire, wasn’t immune to it, as she told Vulture: ‘I cry when I hear the song. It’s Pavlovian. If it comes on when I’m at yoga or something, I’ll cry. I’m always worried people will notice and be like, Oh, is that the girl from the show?’
Showrunner and writer Alan Ball said, ‘there’s no dialogue, it’s all about image. It had to be a montage. And we had to find precisely the right song.’ Music supervisor Gary Calamar revealed that Ball’s direction was, ‘They’re driving to the final journey of life, for the characters and for the show.’ He wanted something hopeful and wistful, but with a certain feel that they’re searching for something.’ A few other songs made the shortlist, but the song, which Calamar, who was also an LA radio DJ, had been playing on his night-time show, was a unanimous choice, and Ball wrote the scene to fit it.
Black Mirror San Junipero – ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’
The fourth episode in the third series of the sci fi anthology was written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker. Set in San Junipero, a beach resort, the town is part of a simulated reality that the elderly can inhabit, even after death.
The episode was designed as a 1980s period piece and the soundtrack interweaves 80s songs with an original score by Clint Mansell. It won two Primetime Emmy Awards and Charlie Brooker was inspired to write the uplifting ending because he heard ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ on a streaming playlist. The power pop classic plays at the episode’s beginning, and over the end credits. It’s not often that you get a happy ending in the dystopian Black Mirror-world, but in San Junipero, as Brooker told Vogue, the two characters ‘have the happiest ending imaginable’.
The song was used to symbolise love and fantasy in the face of death and hardship as it details the relationship between two women, Yorkie and Kelly, who meet in a virtual reality afterlife, existing forever in a simulation as their younger, more carefree selves. As the episode navigates different decades, the music in San Junipero is essentially the third lead character – to the extent that Brooker ended up compiling a 42-track Spotify playlist of all the music featured in it, or which inspired it.
As Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Kelly, said, ‘For me, I’ve always used music as a way in for the character and always make a playlist for a way into a certain scene, or to channel a certain energy for the character. For this, there was a built-in playlist that Charlie had already written into the script.’
The Umbrella Academy – ‘Istanbul’
Music supervisor Maggie Philips was given a fun brief for the soundtrack to The Umbrella Academy: ‘Be nostalgic, go big, and give the people what they want!’ For the outrageously cool action scenes, ‘we wanted to play against the action/violence. It’s a fun graphic novel, these are kids and superheroes. We didn’t want the scenes to feel too bad ass or serious in tone, and the songs helped with that.’
In the first episode, Number Five battles it out with would-be captors in a doughnut shop to the quirky sounds of They Might Be Giants’ ‘Istanbul’. And part of what makes it a brilliant choice is where it appears in the episode: at the end. As the audience have had some time to get to know Five, the craziness of it all makes sense. If the fight sequence had been the audience’s introduction to the character, then it would have been slick, but not as memorable.
Music That Resonates
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