Rockers Sell! Rockers Sell Out!

- April 9, 2012

"The number of artists who recorded Coca-Cola commercials may be greater than the ones who didn’t..."

On a recent episode of the TV show Mad Men, a subplot involved an attempt to convince the Rolling Stones to record an ad for Heinz foods. The program, set in the ’60s, goes to great lengths to be historically accurate and although Heinz never got the Stones—in Mad Men or in reality—the idea wasn’t far-fetched. Many hip groups and artists of that era unabashedly sold out to convention. Around 1964, the Rolling Stones recorded a jingle for Kellogg's Rice Krispies. The group was still struggling for big-time success but in retrospect, it seems incongruous.

General Foods’ Great Shakes, a 1960s milkshake-making powder, scored big time with ads cut by the Yardbirds, Byrds and the Who among others. It was part of the swingin’ image of the times and was innocuous enough. Not nearly as forgivable was a radio spot The Who cut promoting the U.S. Air Force! Someone found this befitting? The Who did have an uncanny ability to blur art with commerce, particularly with their fake ads on The Who Sellout LP.

Eric Clapton’s group Cream, known for its psychedelic blues jamming, laid down an ad for Falstaff beer. One would assume their intoxicants of choice did not list hops as an ingredient.

In the more innocent '50s, Budweiser was touted by the clean-cut Crew Cuts and Olympia Beer snagged Buddy Holly as a singing pitchman.

The number of artists who recorded Coca-Cola commercials may be greater than the ones who didn’t; Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin, the Troggs, Otis Redding, the Moody Blues, Vanilla Fudge, Supremes, Lee Dorsey, Little Milton, the Box Tops and Marvin Gaye are just a start. Long before Madonna and Michael Jackson got involved hawking Pepsi, Del Shannon sang his praises of the cola.

Some artist tie-ins were appropriate. Who better to ballyhoo Royal Crown hair pomade than Little Richard? Jeans have always been popular with the casual crowd and White Levis were the "in" thing in the ’60s. These albino denims got a boost from ads by Canned Heat, and Jefferson Airplane pulled a rabbit out of the hat for White Levis as well.

These days, it's commonplace to hear hits reconfigured into ads and for artists themselves to tout a product. Much of the population doesn't remember it being any other way. Chevrolet’s use of Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock” makes perfect sense considering his Detroit ties. But who would have predicted Bob Dylan would be shilling for Cadillac and Victoria’s Secret? Can he really be that desperate for extra pocket change? Some singers restrict their commercials to non-U.S. markets, enabling them to make some money without sacrificing their image stateside. Others, such as Tom Waits and Neil Young, remain staunchly anti-ad; Neil with his song “This Note’s For You” and Tom with his successful lawsuit again Frito-Lay for employing a sound-alike singer.

Among the more left-field commercial connections has to be Volkswagen's use of music from long-deceased, downbeat Brit folkie Nick Drake. Following the airing of those ads, his catalog sold significantly more than when he was alive in the early ’70s.

Considering the implosion of the music industry, artists "selling out" continues to be a viable, acceptable income option. Products use artists, artists use products, everybody wins. And we're all entertained in the process.

The Rolling Stones for Rice Krispies:

The Yardbirds for Great Shakes:

The Who for the U.S. Air Force:

Cream for Falstaff Beer:

Volkswagen ad with Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon":