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Opinion: Creativity and the Power of Sync

Neal Davies, CEO BBDO Dublin

Music is a powerful and universal form of expression and when chosen carefully it can greatly enhance the advertising experience, writes Neal Davies.

There’s one ad that I keep coming back to since I first saw it in the late 90s. It’s a Lufthansa spot made by the German agency Springer & Jacoby and it’s a wonderful example of the power of music in advertising. In it, we see footage of a grimy, seedy, New Your City, filmed from the back of a cab that we follow into and around the city. Claustrophobic images flash by: the busy streets, the basketball games, the congestion, the canyons of skyscrapers, gangs on street corners, couriers on bikes zipping through the lanes, a crazy man in the middle of the road thinking he’s directing the traffic, and a firefighter who actually is.

The music that underpins these images is an impenetrable version of free jazz. The shrill skronks of the saxophones create a soundtrack of unease and discomfort which makes the images seem foreboding and fearful. You are left with the feeling that you don’t want to be in that cab. You don’t want to be in that city. Then, 30 seconds in, the ad fades to black and starts again, repeating exactly the same footage as you saw in the first half of the ad, but with one key difference. This time the soundtrack is Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. Whereas the free jazz created unease, making each image seem threatening, when bathed in luscious 17th century strings, the very same images feel welcoming and warm. You love this city. The ad ends with the caption: “You see the world the way you fly” and the Lufthansa logo. It’s brilliant.

I’ve been thinking about music in ads recently. I love that it’s an area that still provokes
passionate debate both within agencies and with clients. And that led to me thinking about the history of songs in ads, but I wanted to find out a little more about the process, so I took some time to speak to Julian Goodkind from Pure Sync, somebody who doesn’t just wade in with an opinion, but does this for a living.

Most articles about this topic start with jingles in the early days of commercial radio, before noting the early use of well-known songs in US ads, such as The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun for a bank in the late 60s and I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke in the early 70s. The MTV generation spawned Michael Jackson and Madonna amongst others for Pepsi. But the next big milestone was when, in an attempt to establish retro-Americana as part of their brand heritage, Levi’s mined the archives and provided hits again for Percy Sledge, Ben E. King and of course Marvin Gaye.

The first ad in that campaign was utterly groundbreaking at the time. In it, Nick Kamen
stripped down to his boxers in a launderette to a soundtrack of Gaye’s I Heard It Through
the Grapevine. Ironically, Levi’s couldn’t afford the original song and used a precise cover version instead. The ad became a massive cultural phenomenon and as a result, Motown reissued the single with a sticker on the sleeve saying: “The original version of the song heard in the Levi’s 501 commercial”. It became a massive top 10 hit in 1985 back when being a top ten hit meant selling an awful lot of records.

From that point onwards, music was ‘A Thing’, and famous songs appeared in ads that
became famous again, and famous ads made unfamiliar songs famous. Dusty Springfield’s Going Back for ESB, Guaglione by Perez Prado in the famous 1994 Guinness ad, or even I Will Survive in the HSE QUIT spot, for example.


More recently, we could look at the The John Lewis Effect: wistful cover versions delivered
in understatedly seductive tones. From Ellie Goulding doing Elton John to Slow Moving
Millie doing The Smiths, The John Lewis Effect, has launched a thousand imitators. Not all of them work, but Renault’s recent same-sex couple ad featuring a wistful cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall has been a highpoint.

I also like how the creative process occasionally takes you down the counter-intuitive route. I worked with Sony PlayStation in the early days of that product. You would think that the high-octane adrenaline rush of videogaming meant that you would use The Prodigy in the ads, but often standing out with something different is more important. In the classic Double Life ad from 1998, we used Gabriel Faure’s Requiem in D Minor. From 1890.

As part of the creative process, I have had the opportunity to work with Julian from Pure
Sync: an ex-music industry executive who combines his knowledge of music with the
creativity of the ad industry, in a world known to him as “sync”: the synchronisation of
music with images. We talked briefly about Kate Bush’s recent number one on the back of Hounds of Love being featured in Stranger Things. Bush is an artist I’ve played to my daughters for over a decade to no avail, but she’s somebody that they’re suddenly very interested in. As Julian said, “there are four words to describe that: ‘the power of sync’”.

We talked about the due diligence and the legalities of contract negotiation and usage
rights, but by and large our conversation was about creativity and the joy of music. Julian
pointed out that sadly, music is often the last element that anybody thinks about during the creative process. I asked him why music is so important, and he confirmed that “it’s an emotional connection and a universal language”. He suggested I try an experiment: “Turn the sound off your television and watch an advert. There’s very little there without those layers of emotion from the music, providing context for the story and telling you how to interpret the images you’re seeing.”

That’s certainly how the Lufthansa spot worked and why it has stayed with me for so long.
Music matters.

Neal Davies is CEO of BBDO Dublin and is currently writing a biography of the singer and songwriter Elvis Costello.

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