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

Thursday, January 30, 2014

United Airlines's 'Orchestra' Commercial, featuring 'Rhapsody in Blue' United Airlines's 'Orchestra' Commercial, featuring 'Rhapsody in Blue'

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?

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Comments [8]

concetta nardone from Nassau

There have been tv series that had very nice music composed for them.
Morse, The Tudors, The White Queen, Inspector Dalgleish and some original scores for films. Have not seen enough of Black Sails as yet. God what a wallow.

Feb. 01 2014 11:08 AM
Bruce from NJ

On a lighter note (no pun intended), it's a good thing the orchestra on the plane in the 2012 commercial didn't have to go through US Customs - the instruments may have been doomed to the same fate as Krystian Zimerman's pianos.

Feb. 01 2014 09:37 AM
Howard from Florida

"The Shadow" used part of "Omphale's Spinning Wheel".

Feb. 01 2014 09:34 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Karin Krueger has spoken for me better than I could have. I decry the degradattion, and to me, the bastardization of the high art we love so dearly for any and all commercial purposes. Let the hucksters hire and continue to hire composers to compose original jingles, background music, and the like. Though this may seem inconsistent, and perhaps it is, I didn't and still don't mind hearing excerpts from classical/opera as the intros to radio soap operas, "but not for selling its wares. In fact, the most outstanding and creative use of classical music/opera for a popular television series was the television series "The Lone Ranger". In addition to originally composed background music, you can hear brief excerpts from "Die Fledermaus", "Der fliegende Holla"nder", "Martha", "Euryanthe", to say nothing of the Guillaume Tell Overture. Flash Gordon used part of Liszt's "Les Preludes", Sgt. Preston of the Yukon used Reznicek's "Donna Diana Overture". Bulldog Drummond used part of the I Vespri Siciliani Overture. As was mentioned, in those days, all of these treasures were part of our common culture that we learned about at home and in school.

Feb. 01 2014 09:30 AM

@Karin: Good comments. There is a fine line between caricature and real understanding/love of classical music. At this point, I'd be happy with the general public at least being aware -- that way, there could be interest generated.

Without awareness, -- well, there is no awareness.


Feb. 01 2014 01:25 AM
Karin Krueger from NY,NY

The tactic of using classical music in the background of advertisements and movies has been around since silent movies. In fact, how many of us remember watching cartoons as kids, with classical music used ironically, contrasting the antics on the screen. Or the caricature of an opera singer in many a Looney Tunes. This is fine for those of us brought up in households with the love of classical music, but for those I know who did not grow up with classical music in the background, this type of exposure does nothing to create an appreciation of the genre. If you develop a negative or, at best, a comical association with a type of music, it will stay with you. Never again can you hear that music without the original association. As much as I loved Disney’s Fantasia with its generally sensitive visualization of classical music, to this day I find it hard to hear Dance of the Hours without having the comic images a dancing hippos come before my eyes – which greatly hinders in the appreciation of the music. So for me, I prefer the approach the Met has been using in recent years to popularize the genre – but I don’t if it’s been effective.

Jan. 31 2014 08:27 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Years ago, MacDonalds advertised using Lyric Opera of Chicago and used a scene from I believe LaBoheme. British Air has used music from Lakme, I catch classical music quite often in films. In the John Wayne western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Victor Mclagglan(?) is walking into the blacksmiths shop and while he is entering the shop, you hear an Irish jig, while in the shop you hear the hammering of the Nibelungen, Victor leaves the shop and the Irish Jig continues. In another John Wayne western, The Cowboys, you hear Vivaldi while the group is looking over a beautiful hillside. There was also a tv commercial years ago for Belmont Racetrack that also used Vivaldi's music.

Jan. 30 2014 02:49 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This represents a curious time in America.As this country becomes more musically illiterate,the most basic classical pieces sound exotic.It is totally unrealistic to expect fans who listen to Jay-Z,Katy Perry,and even those who enjoy Celine Dion or Lorde to appreciate Schoenberg or Boulez in a commercial.We therefore get the "William Tell Overture","Carmina Burana","Rhapsody in Blue",and the usual suspects that commenters on this site label "Classical Lite".

Jan. 30 2014 02:45 PM

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