Ad Report Card

What’s the Worst Ad Song Ever?

The results are in.

Last week, I asked you to send in your favorite examples of incongruous advertising soundtracks. (This was in response to GE’s use of the mining folk song “Sixteen Tons”—in an ad that touts the wonders of coal.) Your response has been overwhelming.

The big winner, submitted by dozens and dozens of you, is Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which used Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in a series of spots. As my reader Andrei put it, “Nothing says maritime comfort like a song about shooting up junk.” A sampling of other e-mails I got on this mismatch:

“Love the tune, but did the cruise folks actually think about the lyrics? ’Here comes Johnny Yen again/ With the liquor and drugs/ And a flesh machine/ He’s gonna do another strip tease.’ Somewhere between the drugs and the strip tease, it hits you: Yeah, this is way more than an ordinary vacation.”

“I don’t know what, exactly, Iggy means when he says that he’s ’done it in the ear before,’ but I’m sure Royal Caribbean won’t allow it on their cruise ships.”

A very close second was Wrangler’s use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” in an ad for jeans. Something about the patriotic vibe of the ads, mismatched with this fiercely defiant song, really got your hackles up:

“The ad plays the first line of the song [’Some folks are born made to wave the flag/ Ooh, they’re red, white and blue’] against a backdrop of a waving American flag (and blue jeans on tight American asses). Then the words cut out, but the song continues on. The rest of the song is, of course, an anti-war, anti-government, anti-rich folk statement. The very next line is ’And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”/ Ooh, they point the cannon at you.’ Wrangler evidently just likes the guitars. I’ve never seen a commercial do a better job of ideologically castrating a song.”

Third place, with yet another slew of responses, goes to Mercedes-Benz’s use of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz”:

“I’ve always wondered about Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz,’ which I always interpreted as a song critical of capitalism and materialism through the tragedy of poor people asking God in despair for the ultimate upper class status symbol which somehow will erase the pain of poverty. When Daimler started using it to sell Benzes, I felt awful. I still do. Joplin did drive a Porsche (which makes the next lyric—’My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends’—a possible self-criticism). Then again, she probably vomited in it.”

So there you have our medal winners. Other head-scratching song choices seem not to be confined to any particular product category—or any musical genre. As you’ll see, they’re all over the map. (And please note, I’ve tried to make sure you guys remembered all these ads—and song lyrics—correctly. Any remaining errors are entirely yours. But do let me know if you find any.) Below, the best of the rest:

“Kahlua and Pepsi both used the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ for an ad. They had to clip out pretty much the whole song—except for the words ‘brown sugar’—because the song is about crazy-wild interracial sex with slaves. The song isn’t borderline offensive, it’s actually offensive (which isn’t to say I don’t love it), which is why the Stones’ best business strategy is that people can’t really understand Mick Jagger.”

“Another strong candidate is Best Buy’s use of Sheryl Crow’s ‘Soak Up the Sun’ to lure people into their stores to buy TVs, DVD players, stereos, and all manner of digital goodies. So exactly which verse of this anticonsumerism rant was it that attracted the big-box retailer? ’I don’t have digital/ I don’t have diddly squat/ It’s not having what you want/ It’s wanting what you’ve got.’ “

“I have to nominate Applebees’ ‘Take this steak and top it’ ads. Since the source of the jingle is ‘Take This Job and Shove It’—and the ‘shove it’ is short for ‘shove it up your ass’—it’s a horrible choice. Applebees wants to shove a steak up my ass?”

“I pick Canon copiers and ‘Let the River Run’ by Carly Simon. I happen to love this song about dreaming, hope, revolution, etc. Anyone who has ever used a copy machine knows that it’s an uninspired endeavor that can kill one’s soul. Somehow, that’s just not a match.”
—Legal temp

“KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) using ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Wouldn’t that make it AFC?”

“The most egregious pairing would seem to be the use of ‘Look What They Done to My Song, Ma’ to sell Oatmeal Raisin Crisp. They changed the words to: ’Look what they done to my oatmeal.’ I noticed this irony even as a child when I first heard it. (Eons ago—the ‘70s?)”

A number of readers took particular exception to the commercial use of songs that are actually about drugs, suicide, or other dark corners of life:

“It all started with the posthumous butchering of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’ for Volkswagen (the spot pictured four carefree slackers driving in a convertible to a party they decide not to go to because they are having such an awesome, non-lonely, super-unsuicidal time together), completely ignoring the post-apocalyptic misery of the deceptively sweet-sounding song.”

“My favorite: The NFL’s use of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in a Super Bowl ad for itself. The ad: A montage of home movies and official films shows fans enjoying the thrills of the sport with Reed’s song about heroin and suicide playing in the background.”

“I thought one of the worst uses of a song ever was ‘There She Goes’ as covered by Sixpence None the Richer. It was used for an ad for the birth control patch (Ortho-Evra, I believe). It appears the original theme of the song was lost on the advertising firm and Sixpence None the Richer; the song (originally performed by the La’s) is about the exploits of a heroin addict. Why couldn’t they have just used a song by Soft Cell or Suede, about sadomasochism or something? It would have made as much sense to me … “

“Volkswagen’s use of Psychic TV’s ‘Roman P’ was just plain bizarre. The commercial used the happy-sounding ’Are you free? Are you really free? Are you really really really free?’ chorus, assuming most viewers would be unfamiliar with the rest of the lyrics, which include a vignette in which Sharon Tate’s ghost witnesses Roman Polanski’s shady sexual activities with a young girl. Either that, or Volkswagen was courting a fairly perverse demographic.”

The Beatles had a few defenders:

“I used to chuckle when those Philips Electronics ads came on TV. With its sunny, recognizable melody, the Beatles’ ‘Getting Better’ was a good choice, up to a point. A prominent feature of the song is the phrase ’can’t get no worse’ during the chorus, seeming to express the British propensity for simultaneous optimism and pessimism. I noticed the folks at Philips left that phrase out … not to mention the other parts about adolescent rage and the beatings he gave his woman.”

“Using the Beatles’ ‘Taxman’ for H&R Block seems a bit strange. The song vilifies the taxman, but the commercial identifies the taxman as … an H&R Block accountant near you! Maybe not what George Harrison had in mind?”

Readers had multiple problems with an ad for Windows:

“Microsoft used the Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up.’ Lines like ’I can’t compete’ are weirdly appropriate for a monopoly.”

“Among the many examples that come to mind are Microsoft’s use of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ to sell Windows. Their edit conveniently leaves out the refrain ’You make a grown man cry’—a sentiment all too familiar to Windows users.”

Maybe they should have used “Crash” by the Dave Matthews Band?

Finally, there were a number of car ads (including a couple for the same car) that got people’s dander up:

“No doubt, the ad whizzes at GM’s agency thought that tying the ‘new’ Cadillacs to the loud and very male Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ would be viscerally a great idea. But the song is about not getting any! Those of us who know the lyrics (and let’s face it, there aren’t that many to learn) know the song is about a guy complaining that it’s been a ’lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.’ So is the message buy a Caddy and forget about getting laid? Argh!”

“The most outrageous misrepresentation of a song must be the Nissan Maxima commercial featuring the Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?’ A college radio favorite from the late ‘80s, it has to be one of the most depressing tunes ever used to sell anything. Sample lyrics: ’There’s a club if you’d like to go/ you could meet somebody who really loves you/ so you go, and you stand on your own/ and you leave on your own/ and you go home, and you cry/ and you want to die.’”

“When Nissan redesigned the Maxima in 2000 or so, the commercials consisted of the car tearing across a desert (or salt flat, something that flies up in an impressive whirlwind behind the tires) to the sound of Pete Townshend’s power chords from the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ So a redesign of your typical reliable Japanese midsize sedan with nothing overly exciting about it gets introduced by ’Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’ Yeah, that gets me excited about the new car. The irony: About a year later I bought a 2001 Maxima. What can I say? It’s reliable and drives really nice.”