Classical Commercials: Can Gounod Sell Shampoo? Actually, Yes.

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Sunday’s Super Bowl will feature 55 commercials and chances are, some of them will feature a symphony or an opera aria embedded in the soundtrack. Classical music in advertising goes back decades but its purpose has changed – becoming more self-referential, ironic and often comedic in its use.

"Classical music is very serious in its nature and so often the use is polarized,” said Randall Foster, the director of licensing and business development at Naxos, which supplies recordings to advertisers. "Either it’s taken on its face value... or, on the far spectrum, there’s a great irony in placing something very classical and rigid under a very funny storyline.”

Foster cites an ad for Herbal Essences shampoo, which premiered during the Grammy Awards telecast. The cheeky spot features a snippet of soprano Ana Maria Martinez singing "Je veux vivre" from Gounod's Romeo and Juliette. A voiceover quotes lines from Shakespeare's play while a male character follows the female protagonist around (and into a shower) with a handheld camera.

Advertisers have sought to contrast everyday products with classical music’s "upscale" associations, at least since Kellogg's introduced a Rice Krispies campaign in the 1960s touting "great moments at breakfast” and featuring reworked versions of Pagliacci and Carmen. But as piracy and illegal file-sharing cut into album sales over the last decade, advertising is increasingly viewed as an important revenue stream for musicians and labels.

"People are up for it,” said Jerry Krenach, the managing director of global music production at the agency McGarryBowen. “It’s evident too in the way that labels and publishers promote the uses of songs," he said.

In 2012, McGarryBowen won the account for United Airlines, which had just finished a merger with Continental. Among the holdovers through the acquisition was United's signature Rhapsody in Blue theme. Krenach and his colleagues wanted to give the piece a reboot, so they commissioned a recording of a new arrangement played by the London Symphony Orchestra. “Part of what I wanted to do was approach it from a cinematic perspective,” said Krenach. “I wanted to get as much as we could out of that piece.”

The campaign launched with a 60-second spot called “Orchestra,” featuring a full symphony on the plane, complete with timpani in the business class seats (some commentators noted an irony in this given the well-publicized troubles some musicians have faced carrying their instruments onto planes).

Rhapsody in Blue remains under copyright, so United pays a licensing fee to the Gershwin estate (Krenach declined to cite a specific figure, though United’s initial layout in 1987 was $300,000). But much of the classical canon is in the public domain. “If I’m working with someone on a strict budget it tends to help the bottom line to stick with public domain music,” said Foster. “The creative drives everything and if the entire ad is built around modern music, Mozart won’t fit the bill.”

For advertisers who shell out $4 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, licensing fees may not be a major concern. But for Doritos, a classical soundtrack has become a signature of its annual “Crash the Super Bowl” contest. The chip maker invites people to submit 30-second, homemade Doritos television commercials. Two Super Bowl ads will result – one selected by the votes and one by the Doritos marketing team. The winning creator receives $1 million in prize money. Below is one of the five finalists (the rest can be viewed here):

Some pieces like Carmen or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony have a timeless appeal. But are there overlooked pieces that advertisers should consider? “If I have to pick anything that I’m just dying to get placed, we release an awful lot of recordings of modern composers,” said Foster. “I would love to see their music utilized in the advertising space. It’s not a win for classical music now; it’s a win for classical music in the future."

Below are a couple more examples. The first is a Verizon spot that Krenach helped produce using Philip Glass's score to "The Fog of War."

Foster helped secure a performance of Orff's Carmina Burana for this Google Play spot:

Listen to the full podcast above and tell us below: what do you think of the use of classical music in commercials?